Originally Published: Monday, 14 August 2000 Author: Stephen F.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Behind the Scenes With Open Source

The sad fact is, that the more ingredients there are in this pot, the fewer grains of salt there are. Many persons would like to reap the benefits of Linux, and simply don't have the willpower or know-how to give back to the community.

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You know, Linus Torvalds can lay claim to something very unique: he began a project that has strapped together some of the world's very best hackers and coders to work for free.

Yes, for free. Have you ever wanted to start making some software, for example, a game? If you enlist the help of professionals, you are going to pay through the nose for that assistance.

If you ask one of the Open Source Software (OSS) leaders to help you, then it's most regrettable that they can't. They're all working on something of their own. And their finished product won't generate any money for them.

Well, it's possible to snatch an OSS developer for your own commercial intentions, but can you get even ONE person to help you design your software for free? Doubtful. As you can imagine, getting so many hundreds of people to band together in a massive volunteer effort is no simple task.

There's something that Linus did first, though. Rather than enlist other people's help, he took the lead. He produced a working kernel, and then let volunteers join the effort. He took the first step, and then simply left the rest of the world to decide whether they wanted a part of it. But even today nobody can duplicate this success; many projects get dozens of hundreds of volunteers to help build a single application. But the many who commit to helping out with the GIMP project won't ever have the satisfaction of knowing that the GIMP is required for nearly as many applications as Linux will be.

As we go along our merry way, more and more volunteers help out. Some of them doing no more than submitting bug reports. But the least of those bug reports is important: The more reports exist, the easier it is to find bugs and fix them.

Of course, the whole thing is picking up. But as the minutes wear on, there are fewer and fewer people to volunteer, proportionally. It is no accident that the first Linux users were knowledgeable computer users, or that they were in some way or other an expert on Linux. It's no accident that there are far more people working for free on Linux than there are for HP-UX, IRIX, Solaris, or Windows, although such people do exist.

The sad fact is, that the more ingredients there are in this pot, the fewer grains of salt there are. Many persons would like to reap the benefits of Linux, and simply don't have the willpower or know-how to give back to the community. Of course, it is all volunteer. If you don't want to, you don't have to, and nobody is going to make you do it. But it's not difficult, and doesn't take much time. Spend 15 minutes per day at www.linuxdoc.org reading HOWTOs, or other relevant documents. Sit in on an IRC room, or lurk in Usenet or a Bulletin Board somewhere; you can find Linux BBS in many places, MaximumLinux.com and LinuxNewbie.org to name a couple of them. Just watch and see what you learn. When you see somebody ask a question that you know the answer to, be the first to respond.

Some questions are very simple; Most people asking questions are desperate enough to get an answer, whether or not they figure it out. You may have been that person. I know I have.

I've seen questions as simple as "Help! mnt /floppy won't work," so I know that not all questions require an expert's answer.

If you're at all interested in giving back to the community, you should know that it's not difficult. It's not time consuming. It will make you a better person. And it won't kill you (which is very important).

I don't work at Linux.com, and am kind of an un-official volunteer myself. I can see at www.linux.com/volunteer that linux.com is badly needing help in many departments. It would be great if you could make some kind of commitment to their workforce. Realistically, many people simply cannot do this. But a bandage is better than an open wound, so you could take a moment and make a contribution.

You can lurk in newsgroups, just watching what goes on. You'll soon see that the people answering questions are usually the same people answering the same questions. You'll also learn more about how Linux works while you're at it.

I sometimes have to ask questions; uncommon questions, with no easy answer, like "Why does my PCI modem work in Linux 2.2, but not 2.4," and sometimes I get no answer. If and when I eventually work out what was going wrong, I take a moment to let the other volunteers know what I did to make it work. "Ah, the BIOS was locking the serial port, and it had to be disabled in BIOS settings." Most often, I get to credit the person who inspired me to disable the serial port; in this case, minimoog of the Linuxnewbie.org BBS.

The fact is, Linux is sorely needing more help. Many people who have not only the capacity, but also the desire or willingness to volunteer simply don't know how to. You don't have to be a hacker to help. You don't have to know how to fix bad code, or read .c files like bedtime stories.

At the very least, try to work on a 1:1 scale. For every time you are helped, try to help someone else.

Of course, it's all optional. But you will learn more about Linux while you do it, so you have an added incentive. Case in point: I was recently referred a person via ICQ who wanted help installing Linux on his machine and getting it set up. I took the opportunity to help out in this ongoing struggle, and the next day visited irc.linux.org to see what could be done in #linuxhelp.

I found one person who wanted help setting up a CD writer in Linux, and took the opportunity to do what I could for him, as well. By the time I had figured out how to get his working, I had my own working as well; It'd been used as a "Read-only" device until then.

Nodody is going to make you do anything. But please, don't leave all the work to "somebody else," because somebody else is really nobody. Somebody else doesn't use Linux; you do.

-msibn belongs to a proportionally diminishing group of people who actually do want to know how their computers work. He would like for people to donate their winning lottery tickets to him.





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