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The Open Source Column – It pays to help

The vast majority among the Linux community? Incredibly helpful. The minute minority? Less so, suspects Simon...

Whenever anyone tells you they’ve got a story of a friend to tell you about, then invariably, the instant suspicion is that they’re talking about themselves. Invariably, this has been taught to us by the nudge- nudge discussion of matters more intimate and personal than you’d expect to find in this particular organ. But perhaps it’s human nature, too.

I therefore have to accept what I’m walking into here. I am telling the story of a friend, but I’m telling it in the full knowledge that half of you won’t believe me. And that’s if I’m doing well. Bah.

My friend, then, and you’ll excuse me for disguising a few details. I’d been badgering him to try Linux for a while, partly through it being the right thing for him to do, and also to stop him moaning incessantly about Windows. He complained about price, stability, speed… well, you can fill in the picture. I think when he saw the upcoming Metro interface, it finally tipped him over the edge.

Eventually, he decided then to give Linux a try. He’s always been savvy enough to go online and ask for help when he’s stuck, so I figured I wouldn’t need to be a 24-hour support line (most of us have been there, I’d wager). He thus went to DistroWatch, chose his distribution of choice and installed it.

Things did not go to plan. While he managed to get the OS installed, he hit a few compatibility issues and went to a regular online forum he frequents to post a few of his issues. Sadly, this wasn’t one of the many, many friendly Linux-centric web destinations, as he was soon to discover.

The solutions to my friend’s issues were quite straightforward as it happened, as these things tend to be. But sadly, he found himself on the wrong side of one or two sneering know-it-alls. The kind of people who take delight in knowing more about things than you do, and therefore, rather than help, their response was more along the lines of ‘isn’t that obvious?’

I hate that. Absolutely loathe it. I’m grateful that it’s a very, very small proportion of people who do it. But aren’t we all past the stage where gloating about knowledge is the right thing to do?

I should say at this point that I hold a long- term love for apparently stupid questions. They’re the simple things where you sometimes feel odd for asking, but if you don’t, you never know the answer. My friend’s questions weren’t massively sophisticated, perhaps, but he retreated from Linux at this point, because he felt he’d invaded a clique, and felt like he was being chucked out of it. He’s since given it a more successful try, thankfully.

His is a very rare story, but it’s not entirely isolated. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve asked for help and advice from, and the overwhelming majority of online forums, are positive. But the problem is that when someone is outside of their comfort zone, that’s where an open source community really does its work. A community, by its nature, should be supportive and helpful. And for the most part, this one is too.

Yet I suspect and fear we’ve all met at least one person at some stage who hasn’t quite adopted that ethos. And given that open source software will never have a sufficient number of advocates, that’s something the community can ill-afford. After all, everyone knew nothing once upon a time…

Surface tension

I’ve found it interesting to read comments from Microsoft of late, where the company is conceding that it’s decision to make its own tablet hardware – in the form of the Surface – is likely to rub many of its long-standing hardware partners up the wrong way. I’m not surprised, either. microsoft is playing a dangerous game in its imitation of Apple, and I can’t help feeling that the world doesn’t need a clone of the orchard…