Yes, We Need Users Too!

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 01, 2008

I’m a bit taken aback by this post by Jason Harris over on the KDE Developer’s Journals site. Harris says that ” KDE, like many other open-source projects, doesn’t really need users at all, whether they are poisonous or not.”

Now, a qualifier — Harris' post is provoked by a discussion of “poisonous” users, i.e., those select few users who turn up and (intentionally or not) do “contribute” to the project in the form of dissonance and conflict, but the idea that open source doesn’t need users is one that should be strongly refuted.I think virtually everyone agrees that projects would be better off without the trolls, griefers, and assorted characters whose presence adds up to a drag on the project rather than just a passive consumer of code or fan of the project.

I get the gist of Harris argument — KDE (or any other project) can deliver code without any users. So, from a purely functional standpoint, I guess that’s true. To exist, KDE doesn’t need anyone who just uses the code without making contributions. But what’s the point?

An open source project without users is like a band without an audience, a restaurant with no customers, or a writer with no readers. What’s the point in creating something useful, if no one uses it? Why go to the trouble in the first place, if you’re not looking to make something that will be used, and used widely?

Yes, we hope that many users will become contributors — but 1) our acceptance of users should not be predicated on the idea that we’re just waiting for them to “level up” to contributor status, and 2) if every user of KDE or openSUSE decided to become a contributor tomorrow, would we really be able to handle the input?

Finally, I think most developers work on projects like KDE because they care about free and open source software. If you’re a FOSS supporter, then I’d suggest that it’s important to gather as many users as possible in order to convince them of the merits of FOSS.

From where I’m sitting, the attitude that “my FOSS project doesn’t need users” is a strong argument for users to support proprietary software instead.Proprietary vendors have an economic incentive to cater to users — even if some proprietary vendors have not done so particularly well — and if the FOSS attitude is “we don’t need you,” we will most certainly alienate the bulk of users.

I’ve long argued to my friends, family, co-workers, and audiences full of strangers that they should consider Linux and FOSS not only because the software is high-quality, but because the licensing and community care for users in a way that proprietary software does not. Note that the GNU Project’s Free Software Definition specifically calls out users and not just developers. I’m disappointed to think that some of those people would be greeted with “we don’t need you,” if they don’t qualify as a contributor or prospective contributor.

If nothing else, users help spread the seeds of open source to other potential contributors. The passive user of open source might not ever lift a finger in support of KDE or openSUSE or any other project, but they can be instrumental in passing on the ideas and advocating projects just by using them. By ignoring those users, we lose.

[Hat tip to Matt Asay for the link to Harris' post.]

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier works for Novell as the openSUSE Community Manager.