Open Source – Wonderful but No Free Lunch

June 1, 2007

This is my response to the Humanized Blog – Good Service — Bad Software

A provider of proprietary software has every incentive to keep the customer a happy user. Many times that means understanding that software users come with various skill levels. Some read the manual and scour the web for answers before calling for support. Some users just aren’t as inquisitive, have extreme time constraints or are jack of all trades generalists. These users require hand holding and since they paid for the software have an inherent right to expect a company to help them use the product otherwise they won’t be paying the subscription or buying the upgrade. They also expect that a company support person won’t give them a condescending attitude, tell them to read the manual or make other wise cracks – no matter how simplistic the support question.

I’d like to say that I am a happy user of open source and proprietary software. I appreciate the skill and brain power that is required to produce such magnificent software tools. In the proprietary world, my appreciation is largely shown through my monetary investment in the software. Some of the real ways I can pay the creators of open source software are to make donations, contribute code to the project, or promote the software through blogs, word of mouth etc. All of these forms of compensation are acceptable and valuable however they don’t form an implicit contract between the makers of the software and the user. As a user I cannot hold anyone accountable if I am not receiving the open source support that I would expect from proprietary software makers. I must depend upon the kindness, good graces and mercy of the user community and the authors of the software. I don’t have leverage in the relationship.

The maker of open source is not beholden to the user. Of course the makers of open source software understand their own software. The users of the software must largely conform to the vision and design of the software maker. If they don’t like the design they are free to change it themselves – the source is provided. If they have a question they can ask but are not guaranteed an answer.

The power in the relationship rests largely with the makers of the software. The makers do not have a vested interest in either creating user friendly software or providing user friendly support. This relationship between the maker and the user is fertile ground for user frustration.

I am left to an old adage, “there is no free lunch”. Open source is wonderfully free. The cost often comes in the form of less than desirable usability and hit or miss support.

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