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Posted by gustav at 06:01AM, Tuesday, November 02nd, 2004

With open-source boosters like these, Microsoft doesn't need help dissuading corporations from investing in open-source software

I remember well what a nightmare configuring products like JBoss is -- scant, and usually self-contradictory or just wrong, documentation; "support" fora that seem to exist solely as an ego-trip for the megalomaniacal pointy-headed Gods of the One True Way of Open Source; and configuration settings that change from version to version for no good reason, costing their poor users hours of lost time for nothing.

Just check out the following thread, for starters: http://www.jboss.com/index.html?module=bb&op=viewtopic&p=3904257

If you're not offended by adrian@jboss.org's comments ('Your bug report has been deleted since it is not a bug. http://wiki.jboss.org/wiki/Wiki.jsp?page=HelpBugReport I'm not going to tell you what is wrong either because I don't want to encourage you to "ME TOO" or jump the help queue by posting bug reports to get attention.'), then you have probably never worked with third-party software products like web servers or build tools.

This sort of high-horse attitude -- "I don't have time to deal with your stupid comments," "Why didn't you realize, with no input from me, that I was intentionally ignoring your post because you were such a peon?" -- affects nothing productive. The question-poser learns nothing from these unsubstantive posts. Other people (those pesky users and "customers" for whom the software was, in theory, created) who are googling to solve the issue don't encounter anything useful from Adrian; on the contrary, from him they get nothing but google search noise, and wasted time. They'd be better-off if he posted nothing. In fact, were it not for alchemista's saint-like final reply (which, were I in his or her position, I certainly wouldn't have bothered to make), there would be no indication what the actual problem was. All we'd learn is that this Adrian character is an unprofessional dweeb, lacking in maturity and social skills, and unable to contribute any useful information to the discussion. He seems unskilled at anything but raising the blood-pressure of people unfortunate enough to read his posts, and thus contributes negatively to cosmic karma.

The user has uncovered a real bug (that a configuration that's valid in one version of the product breaks in another version, for reasons unknown) and is rewarded with abuse and vitriol. That's not only painful for that user, but it also discourages new users from trying the product.

I remember back in the days when I was foolish enough to use JBoss, searching for an answer to an issue I was having. I found another thread that seemed to be pertinent; someone from JBoss, sounding very much like this adrian character, replied with arch hateur, "RTFM." That comment was, of course, completely useless, yet amusing, because, as another poster pointed out, there was no "FM" for this new version of the product. That JBoss representative never contributed anything more to that thread, and I was left with the impression that people who make those kinds of statements reflexively only do so because they have nothing useful to add. They either have no useful specific knowledge that might help address the problem, or they do, but lack any sort of ability to interface with other people in a way that gets that information to them, which amounts to the same thing.

Having been away from the horror of ill-conceived open source projects like JBoss for some time -- products where configurations change willy-nilly between updates for no good reason, and users get abused if, before posting to the "support" fora, they don't read through mountains of ungrammatical release notes to try to weed through to what's relevant to them -- I look back on this and have some new perspective. For the last few years I've been working at corporations that have official no-open-source policies. And that sucks. I may heap deserved scorn on JBoss for their total inability to create a usable, high-performance product, but I'm quite a fan of other open-source projects: Ant, Xalan, Xerces, Apache, and Tomcat are all excellent (and, for the most part, well-documented and usable) pieces of software. Using them helps me get my job done. Sadly, a lot of development shops in larger companies need to use them on the sly, in defiance of the Word from On High, or not at all.

Such edicts are often purportedly because there's no "official support": they tend to exist in large companies that have corporate-level support contracts with Oracle, or Microsoft, or Sun -- or possibly all of those. But that's not the whole story. Say I'm a senior development manager at one of these large companies. I've been in the industry for decades; I'm astute enough to see that there are some promising open-source software projects. I'm also spending a lot of my time at work acting as an interface between upper management and my dev teams. I have ideals, and I help run a competent dev shop, but I have to justify any changes I propose in terms the MBAs will accept. This doesn't make me a sellout -- I'm over 50, I have kids in college, I have political causes I like to be able to afford donations to, I like taking vacations, and I've come to realize that arguments such as those I had in my youth over the superiority of LISP machines to more generalized hardware architectures may seem ideological in their microcosm, but they don't exactly feed the hungry or start bombing campaigns. I know that people who believe in causes with all their hearts yet can't articulate why to others -- can't convice others to join them -- don't often make it in the real world. So, when one of my developers suggests I go check out a new open-source product, I give it some serious consideration. I see what Gartner has to say, not because I necessarily think they're great at what they do, but because I know the MBAs will want to read the Gartner reports. I talk to some people who've used the product at my company's competitors. And I start thinking about how I'd argue the "support" point with the MBAs, who just want to keep using whatever Microsoft product this open-source thing is competing with.

And I read a "support" forum post like Adrian's, and I instantly know that I can never argue for my company adopting this product. I know, from decades of experience, that complicated software always breaks. That's the way it is. I know unexpected problems will always eat up percentage points full of the IT development timeline and budget. And I worry about how fast they'll get fixed, about how lucid the documentation is, about how helpful the online community is (one reason Apache's great). And then I see a public representative of this software project setting up a hostile relationship with his users, and wagging his finger in their faces like a three-year-old, shouting "Na na na na na na, I know the answer, but I won't tell you," and I think "Screw it." I've got an anniversary trip to plan for my spouse, and performance reviews to complete, and I'm stressed out about a meeting next week. This piece of software may be the best in the world, but I sure wouldn't know it from their support fora, and that's the place I'm most worried about my developers having to spend all their time. So, screw it. I'll call the guy from Microsoft, and call the guy from Sun, and let them duke it out in their presentations to the steering committee, and I'll remember not to bother with the open source product next time.

Adrian's hostility, his immaturity, and his failure to be able to offer assistance do a tremendous disservice to us all. They inhibit the open-source community's growth and perceived legitimacy in the business market. They're a disservice to the developers and IT staff who have to support products built with hard-to-support open-source products, or with their breakage-prone commercial rivals. They're a disservice to innovation, which gets sacrificed to IT support budgets. And they're a disservice to the poor users who must suffer through products and services that perform worse and break more, for longer, than they might.

People like him are the worst enemy, not only of open-source, but of the developer community in general.
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