Windows users kill “free” open source

I read Bryce Harrington’s The paradox of FOSS projects supporting Windows with some interest. If you’re a Linux enthusiast it should scare you.

Bryce makes the very good point that the ratio between contributors and users on Linux is substantially higher than for Windows users.

The contributor ratio is crucial to the success of an open source project. If the ratio is too low, then users will have difficulty getting support and fixes. Not only that, but a downward spiral may kick in because existing contributors may become disillusioned and leave, meaning the ratio deteriorates further.

Windows users have been well trained not to contribute. Windows software creators get over this problem by charging for their software. The software companies then hire extra software developers to provide support.

The problem for open source projects is that the same model won’t work for them because they don’t charge anything. Consequently, the project isn’t in a position to hire extra software developers and support staff to cover the shortfall in volunteer contributors.

The type of project will likely dictate how bad the problem becomes. For large complex projects, like network management systems for example, the project will be able to charge for support and training. Revenues from which can then be used to provide additional support personnel.

Less complex projects may not be in a position to offer support and training services because the project may not justify them.

A large migration from Windows to Linux would imply that the following sequence of things will happen:

  1. The contributor to user ratio goes down substantially;
  2. Both the new adopters from Windows and existing Linux users will become increasingly disgruntled with the reduction in the quality of support; and
  3. The existing contributors will be overwhelmed and may either curtail their efforts or completely terminate their involvement;
  4. All users will become increasingly unhappy with the deteriorating support they receive from the project with consequent effects to the projects viability and vitality.

What does this mean for Linux and Linux based projects? Either the free (as in beer) model has to change for some projects or migrating Windows users will have to be educated in order that the contributor/user ration remains sustainable.

I am a little sceptical that the vast bulk of Windows users will ever make good open source contributors. The people most willing and best able to contribute are already, by a mechanism of self selection, contributing to open source. The remnants either don’t care or can’t be bothered to contribute. Hardly fertile ground for a message of help yourself, help other people.

Will Linux’s eventual breakthrough on the desktop actually have the effect of killing the universal “free” open source model?

Author: Jack Hughes

An experienced software engineer with 20+ years experience writing products for Microsoft Windows based operating systems as well as 12+ years experience hosting websites on Linux and Windows including e-commerce and CMS systems.