Sure, you can walk into any big-box bookstore and see several shelves full of volumes about open source software — about why you should use it, how to use it, and what to do when you stumble on problems. Likewise, the Web sites of Linux-related companies and organizations are chock-full of white papers and articles analyzing one or another’s position on open source hot topics.
However, the real action for discussion of Linux and the hundreds of other open source software packages out there occurs in real time among ordinary people unconstrained by the limits of print publishers or Web site approval processes. Blogs and podcasts are the preferred communication channels for open source enthusiasts, and that comes as no big surprise.
“The very nature of open source development is driven by collaboration,” Michael Goulde, senior analyst with Forrester Research, told LinuxInsider. “What really is needed is a vehicle for 24/7/365 communication.”
Ego and the Blog
One thing’s for sure: Open source advocates long have been labeled as renegades, whether that’s an apt generalization or not. It’s just a short hop from rebel to other personality traits that bloggers in general often share.
“Blogs allow more expansive discussions,” Goulde noted, adding that the give and take of a blog and its associated comment area can make for the sophisticated collaboration necessary among open source developers. However, “they also allow more ego to show through,” he said.
Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, for example, uses his blog to express views about goings on in the open source community and other news. One recent entry was his vehicle for expressing strong opinions about Microsoft’s efforts to make agreements with open source software providers regarding alleged intellectual property violations.
Keeping the Secret
To be sure, many blogs are simply the public relations mouthpieces of the companies or individuals that publish them. Not surprisingly, those in the open source community are particularly wary of these and tend to avoid them. They’ve had too much of that from the “closed source” world. For example, a range of Microsoft blogs do not allow comments from readers, and some only recently have begun accepting feedback.
“Proprietary products are tied to a company, and around the company is wrapped secrecy,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider. Makers of proprietary software don’t want competitors to know what they’re doing, he noted.”Given enough time, you can get around any patent or copyright, so a proprietary company lives on secrets,” said Enderle.
This is not to say that developers of proprietary software ignore new technology for distributing information through blogs and forums.
“Enterprise developers may have internal blogs, but not so much on the Web,” said Goulde. “Companies have policies about how much their employees talk about internal activities in public.”
By contrast, he explained, “developers participating in open source projects — which may include a small number of corporate developers — have much more motivation to share their thinking about development in general, express their views about their work and the work of others in a project, and want to educate other developers about their work.”
“What works in the open source world is not to contain information, but to share it — all the things that a proprietary software company typically would be very nervous about,” noted Enderle. Thus, companies operating in the open source world must balance the needs of developers for open communication with their own commercial interests.
Linux distributor Red Hat has a whole section of its corporate Web site dedicated to the blogs of various Linux users, and users of Red Hat distributions in particular. Fedora World aggregates a large collection of blogs published through other sources, such as social networking site Live Journal.
Other aggregate blogs are sponsored by non-profits or organizations dedicated to particular open source tools or applications. Planet Apache gathers blog entries from a wide range of writers focusing on Apache news and opinion. Planet Gnome follows in its footsteps, as does Planet Debian.
Public Service and the Donate Button
Not all blogs serve as the personal soapbox of a particular company executive or the offering of a formal organization, though. Some, like the Linux App Finder, offer a tool first and a blog or forum section as a secondary consideration. The Linux App Finder database allows users to locate applications to run on a Linux-based system in a wide range of categories, such as graphics and engineering. It also has an associated blog where site administrator “chadm” writes posts on topics such as “Ripping DVDs to MPEG4 with K9Copy.” Another area of the site offers forums for discussion of topics such as multimedia and Linux.
Rather than relying on a corporate parent, sites such as these depend on user donations and paid advertisements. The Linux App Finder has a “Donate” button prominently displayed on many pages. It also sports an ad for the Linux World conference at the top. Many independent blogs have Google ad sections to generate revenue.