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OSS is Not Focused on Customer Service

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Are you one of those developers who can’t get his/her boss to let you download/prototype/use a Really Cool™ software package that happens to be open-source? Here’s a possible reason why.

For no reason in particular, after installing Cygwin on an old laptop onto which I just dropped Win7, I decided to also drop MinGW32, Cygwin’s main competitor in the “UNIX-on-Windows” space. Wander off to the home page, grab an installer, read the “Getting Started” instructions, and…. down at the bottom, where (as is pretty hip and common these days) random visitors can leave comments or questions to be answered by the project maintainers, we find this exchange:

Re: Getting Started

On April 7th, 2009 mago says:

Hi guys.

Will mingw work on future versions of windows?

I'm upgrading to Vista in a short time and i want to know how much 'upgrading' will make me suffer.

My guess is that you guys at Mingw should develop a new version for Vista?

Or is it just the same? What about the Win32 Api? There are surely additions with newer versions of windows.


Re: Getting Started

keith's picture

On April 7th, 2009 keith says:

I find it really insulting, when someone says "you guys should...".

This is an Open Source project, developed by volunteers in their spare time. You have no right to tell me what I should, or should not do with my spare time. Why should I, rather than you do that?

AFAIK, MinGW already does work with Vista, but why don't you just try it, and see; then contribute on the basis of your experience, either in the form of patches, or failing that, bug reports?

it’s that middle paragraph that will have your boss—any manager responsible for the installation of software within his arena of responsibility, in fact—in fits.

Don’t get me wrong: the project maintainer is clearly well within his rights to express his frustration at the fact that these people keep telling him what he should do, these people (vultures!) who keep leeching off of his hard work, who take and take with no giving back, who…

… are called “customers” in other companies, by the way, and who often have perfectly reasonable requests of the vendors from whom they get their software, because if they had time to build it themselves, they wouldn’t need to download your stuff.

I’ve been having many of the same kinds of “getting started” frustrations with installing Opa onto this same Win7 laptop box, and when I Tweeted about how the Opa experience is clearly not optimal on the Windows platform:

tedneward: @opalang looks like a great idea, but I don't get the feeling they really take Windows (or Win devs) seriously.

And their response was:

@henri_opa: @tedneward We know that Opa on windows is suboptimal and would love new contributors on the windows port in the community.

Which I interpret to mean, “We get that it’s not great, we’re sorry, but it’s not a priority enough for us to fix, so please, fix it yourself and bring that work back to the community.” Which may be great community-facing mojo, but it’s horrible vendor customer service, and it’s a clear turn-off for any attempt I might make to advise a client or customer about using it. Matter of fact, if I can’t even get the silly thing to install and run HelloWorld correctly, you’re better off not claiming Windows as a supported platform in the first place. (Which still goes towards the point that “they’re not really taking Windows or Windows developers seriously as a target market.)

This is the moral equivalent of Delta Airlines telling me, “We’re sorry we lost your bag on the flight, but we don’t have the personnel to go looking for it. If you’d like to come into the back here and rummage around for a while, or make a few phone calls to other Delta offices in other cities, we’d love the contribution.” If I am your customer, if I am the consumer of your product, whether you charged me something for it or not, then you have an implied responsibility to help me when I run into issues—or else you are not really all that concerned about me as a customer, and I won’t ever be able to convince people (for whom this kind of support is expected) to use your stuff. Matter of fact, I won’t even try.

If you’re an open-source project, and you’re trying to gain mindshare, you either think of your users as customers and treat them the way you want to be treated, or you’re just fooling yourself about your adoption, and your “community focus”. You either care about the customer, or you don’t, and if you don’t, then don’t expect customers to care about you, either.

Published at DZone with permission of Ted Neward, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Der Meister replied on Wed, 2013/05/01 - 1:59am

So what is your point?

Unless I have a support contract with one of the (major) non-OSS software companies (and it contains specific SLAs and my problem matches these SLAs), I probably won't even get an answer. There probably even isn't an official forum, where users can answer my questions. And even if I get an answer, it will be something like

"We are working on it. No, we can't tell you when it will be released."

"That's not a bug, it's a feature!"

"Linux? It's a Windows software!"

"Thank you for your mail. You can find more information for X here: (link) or in our FAQ. We hope we have helped you. X Y - customer support."

In my experience I might get a bug fix or work around for an (active, popular) OSS before I even get an acknowledgement from a regular software company.

Wikipedia defines a customer as "... the recipient of a good, service, product, or idea, obtained from a seller, vendor, or supplier for a monetary or other valuable consideration."

If you don't pay or otherwise give something to the OSS developer(s), you are NOT a customer.

So using (or trying to use) a OSS that was just published, because it might be helpful to others, does not make you a customer and it definitely does not entitle you to better support than you get from a regular software company.

Chris Graham replied on Wed, 2013/05/01 - 3:30pm

You shouldn't be thinking "they should treat me as a customer for this thing I am using for free", you should be thinking "what is the process I go through to become a customer?". Serious projects will either have commercial support, or individuals you can contract with directly. If you want good service but are not willing to pay, you shouldn't be surprised if you are treated as a freeloader. It's simply a matter of fairness, don't treat people who've generously put something free out there as if they now have a duty to be your slave. Don't expect OSS developers to be hippies, willing to do whatever asked of them for a priceless smile - they're agents in a capitalist economy like anyone else, needing to earn a competitive/comparable living for the professional efforts they make and to pay off the education/investment it took for them to get there. They're highly skilled professionals who'll want to be treated on par to their peers, whether those are OSS people or not.

Of course, well-run projects should organise feedback, deal with bugs in a responsible way, and have proper facilities and processes - but 1-on-1 support is a different matter. And of course, the mingw guy there is being a total ass, and should instead link you to a description for the correct process to go through.

Felipe Talvik replied on Thu, 2013/05/02 - 10:50am

 " If I am your customer, if I am the consumer of your product, whether you charged me something for it or not, then you have an implied responsibility to help me when I run into issues"

Are you serious? "Implied resposibility to help"?
Pay up and sign a contract.

Ken Whitesell replied on Thu, 2013/05/02 - 11:03am

 One of the rules of any growing business is knowing when to drop a customer. There are some clients that just aren't worth the money that they're paying you for the level of effort you are expending on their behalf.

Personally, I believe in giving my customers more than what they're expecting or "entitled" to receive based upon the size of the contract. But that's my choice, and something I do to create some good-will

But even if I give twice the dollar amount as extra help, twice nothing is still nothing. So no, I don't feel at all responsible to provide any assistance to someone who isn't doing *anything* on their part.

On the other hand, a well-written bug report; some detailed information; or even an honest effort to assist with testing - they all go a long way to providing me with the incentive to help you.

Yes, I want to take care of my _customers_, not every charity case I encounter along the way.

Hikari Shidou replied on Sun, 2013/05/05 - 7:00pm

<p>Well, that's the sad part of OSS.</p>

<p>I have already worked on that side. I developed and distributed free software, and for years only ONCE I received a donation for my work. And it didn't happened to me, but I saw developers complaining that users were very rude on demanding FREE support.</p>

<p>See, it's not their/our obligation to do it. We're giving our free time so other ppl can enjoy the software. It would be much easier if everybody would contribute to the software if they feel it's worth using. And of course, I've seen many good software die after being orphaned. It's VERY sad to be a good professional, want to work on the software we love, but have no money coming from it. In GPL, users are more owners of the software than its devs, so users MUST take good care of it, if they want it to stay alive.</p>

<p>But in he other hand, no OSS lives with only devs. Devs need users, in many levels of contexts. Instead of raging on the guy, he should just have made a post in his website warning that the software community must give more love to is dev maintainers, risking lose them to some paid work. Yell on the user like that will just make things worse.</p>

<p>And yes. For a profitable company, software licence isn't that expensive, even more if they get proper user love from software owner.</p>

Gilbert Herschberger replied on Sat, 2013/05/18 - 10:03pm

Open Source Software is Payback.

The public continues to misunderstand free license and open source software after prolonged effort to educate, define and clarify. I suggest that there is a big difference between what should happen and what actually happens.

What should happen. Anyone who distributes a product should have superior social skills and talent for making their friends happy.

What actually happens. Both technical and social skill is needed to create a great software product. A programmer with high technical skill and low social skill will ultimately gets disillusioned, bitter and frustrated. No one wants to use software that is socially difficult and harsh, no matter what the possible benefit might be. Social skill is reflected in the end-user interface and especially reflected in an application programming interface (or API).

What should happen. Free license and open source software should fit under the umbrella of the commercial system and remove the risk for ultra-conservative corporate customers. It should compete with commercial software on the same turf. It should not be mysterious and unpalatable just because it costs less. (It does cost you something to use any software. Only the license is free.)

An open source open source project should have good "customer" service. It should listen to and satisfy "customer" complaints. It should offer a world-class web site and free technical support.

What actually happens. Open source software uses a bartering system. Bartering is the exchanges of goods or services without any regard to money. When you barter, neither are customers. Two parties are peers.

Anyone who visits your web site is your customer. According to the Malcolm Baldridge Total Quality Award, your "customer" is anyone who interacts with you, your goods and services. So, yes, you can have customers without any exchange of money. Some open source projects have excellent customer service. They treat their peers with dignity and social grace.

I produce free software tutorials and publish them on YouTube. It is my way of giving something back to the community. It is my way of improving my skills. I consider anyone who watches my video to be my customer.

Bartering typically happens when two parties come to an agreement about what will be exchanged. An agreement is made and then the exchange. But free license and open source is generally bad at bartering, too. In this model, an exchange involves parties that do not know each other and may take years. Your peer downloads your product anonymously. You build software in 2000 and someone downloads it in 2010. There is no (practical) recourse for failing to live up to an agreement. It is a cultural value, an honor system, bartering on faith. Some do not share the faith.

Never, ever distribute your free license and open source software with the hope that someday someone will return the favor. This is entirely wrongheaded. Make an effort. Distribute your software to return the favor to all of the free license and open source software that you have already used. Do not expect some future return on your investment. You are indebted. Your contribution is repayment. You have already benefitted.

Educate yourself on free license and open source. Listen to your peers. And when someone wants you to improve your software, be nice.


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