February 2009

Q. How can an individual or small business give back to an open source community?

A. When I first started working in information technology (IT) in the mid 80s, the mainframe was still the platform of choice and personal computers were not yet common place. As IT evolved, there was a huge shift from centralized systems to distributed computing and eventually to Internet enabled systems. During this evolution, more functionality and empowerment shifted from IT professionals to end users. Now, end users have personal computers and mobile devices connected directly to the Internet with thousands of software applications at their disposal. With the emergence of open source software (OSS), individuals and small and medium businesses can compete with large companies by using free or low cost software that supports many of the same features of commercial software packages.

Most open source communities rely on the volunteer work of many people within the community. After using OSS for many years, I felt obligated to give back to an open source community. First, I had to decide which community to support. I took an inventory of all of the open source products that I had used at both work and home. I was amazed to find that at work alone, we were using over one hundred open source products either directly or bundled as part of a commercial software package. At home, almost everything I use is open source because I find it hard to justify spending a few hundred or even thousand dollars on software that I use in my spare time. I also have several old machines that I salvaged by installing Linux. After reviewing my list of OSS products, I narrowed my choices down to Linux and OpenOffice. I felt that Linux had enough large companies behind it like IBM, Sun, and Red Hat and that my impact would be minimal as compared to working with the OpenOffice community.

The next step was to figure out in what capacity I could help. There are many ways that a person can contribute to an open source community. Obviously, donations are a great way to help but active participation is just as important. The most popular participation methods are development and testing efforts, but the needs don't stop there. Each community needs help with documentation, troubleshooting and assisting users in forums, and graphics and art work for branding through logos, widgets, and banners. The OpenOffice community has a user experience team made up of volunteers who discuss usability, user interface design, features, and functionality. But I felt that I could make the biggest impact by helping to market OpenOffice. I happen to have a large social network, a nice following on my blogs, and have had numerous articles published in various printed and e-magazines. My contribution is to spread the word by writing and speaking about my experiences with open source and OpenOffice.

About two years ago, my frustration level with my Windows machine at work hit a new high. Between Outlook taking 10 minutes to open in the morning, blue screens of death appearing throughout the day, and formatting inconsistencies across the suite of Microsoft Office products, I had finally had enough of losing productivity on behalf of expensive commercial software. I downloaded the latest version of Ubuntu and installed it on my work laptop. My company was a full blown Microsoft shop, although we did have some applications that used Linux. A few of us in IT were allowed to use Linux because our application required it. I took this privilege one step further and eliminated all Microsoft products from my toolbox. I set out to prove that even in a Microsoft shop, one could co-exist entirely with OSS. This was a big test for OpenOffice and a great opportunity to put to bed many myths about OpenOffice and OSS in general. I started blogging about my experience and the OpenOffice marketing effort began. I put OpenOffice badges on my blog, blogged about OpenOffice news, and even saved my last slide on a recorded presentation I did at a technology conference to market the fact that the entire presentation was created on a Linux box with OpenOffice. Two of my Microsoft Free blog postings were picked up by Slashdot, Digg, Delicious, a dozen other social bookmarking web sites, and e-magazines like Linux Today, ZDNet, and Computer World. A radio station interviewed me about my experiment.

Two years later, those two postings make up about 65% of all of the traffic I have received to date. Seven months after the second posting, it still gets as many hits each week as my newly posted entries. I primarily write about enterprise architecture, service-orientation, and organizational change management, yet some of the top searches for my blog are "open source + visio" and "open office". My contribution to the community has been providing the world with a real life example of a successful case study of OpenOffice co-existing long term in a Microsoft shop. Many readers can see that many of the myths about open source and OpenOffice are just that, myths. From my blog traffic statistics, I see that many people have clicked on the OpenOffice download badge on my blog. I have generated an ongoing discussion, which is evident from the enormous amount of comments left by readers. I am not trying to sell anything or convince people to switch. Instead, I make people aware of what their options are and how much progress the community has made over the years. So, my marketing efforts as an individual provide impact for the OpenOffice community.

As a user of OSS, do you blog, Tweet, or use Facebook? If you can't afford to commit large amounts of time, you can still help your favourite OSS community. The next time you use an open source product and you like what you see, send out a Tweet or a status update on your favorite social networking platform and start a conversation. It could be as simple as "Just read this great article about OpenOffice by Mike Kavis in the OSBR".

Recommended Resources

Open Source and Microsoft Free

Microsoft Free - One Year Later

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