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Geek Open Source Opinion

Bringing open source to Joe User

I’m afraid open source may never catch on — that is, if the community doesn’t realize a few things. I am aware that I will in no way be making original remarks here. These are just my thoughts.

One of the problems is that, for the most part, one must have a degree in computer science along with advanced knowledge of UNIX-based systems to install and/or run many open source programs. Even the best lay user may get the package unzipped and extracted to a directory, only to find that the program must be run from the command line. So, that drops the user pool to what? Oh, about 10 percent.

Another problem is the lack of documentation. Some (many?) open source programs can barely muster up a README document. Some don’t even have general “about” information available. (Apparently, the user is just supposed to guess from the name of the project/plugin/application). This lack of information can stump even the most avid open source user. Me included. Recently, I encountered a plugin that, though seemingly wonderful, complete, and useful, did not even contain a README document or an about statement. I found it highly frustrating (as I will still tomorrow when I return to it) even with my Computer Science degree, over three years of web programming, and extended use of open source. That sure bodes well.

Thirdly, switching costs are an issue. Open source projects must market themselves in such a way as to break down negativity that is a result of perceived or actual switching costs. A user never wants to give up the level of usability they currently have. A user considering switching to Linux wants to know that their printers will still work, that they can still do everything with Linux that they currently do with Windows, that it’s easy, that programs are readily available, and on and on. Additionally, the information for dealing with these issues need to be accessible, complete, and easy to understand — geek speak isn’t translatable for the majority of the population. Basically, telling the average user that he/she should switch to Linux because it’s cool, open source, and not Windows is just not going to fly.

Additionally, while the open source marketers are out evangelizing, they need to let potential “customers” know that, for the most part, large projects at a production level provide customer support. It is a common misconception that there is no support for open source. Many times I would bet that one of the last things keeping corporations, non-profits, and educational institutions from switching to open source is the perceived lack of support.

So what do users understand? They understand one executable file. In other words, they double-click, an installer appears, and with minimal effort on their part, the program is installed and operable. They understand well-organized, complete documentation to refer to when they encounter questions or issues. They understand support. And once the open source community cares to “get” this, I will applaud and happily install and use that darn plugin.