In January I reviewed Vector Linux 5.8. While the review was mainly positive I did complain about what I saw as some faults in the distribution. The response from the developers of Vector Linux was almost immediate, both in the Vector Linux forum and in the comments under my reviews, and was incredibly positive. In the weeks since then a surprising number of changes and improvements have already been made, particularly in the area of internationalization and localization. A suggestion I made in the VL forum regarding compiling and building packages to insure that localization files (translations into various languages) are included was taken to heart by the developers. The result is that when an updated Xfce package was built after version 4.4.0 was released it included the additional language support. So… if you’re native language is Danish or Hebrew or any other language for which translations exist in Xfce you’ll find, for example, suitable menus for your desktop.
While this may sound like an exceptional example of accepting and acting on feedback from a user of a particular piece of Open Source software it is really, in my experience, something that happens all the time in the Free and Open Source Software community. This is why the pace of development of Windows or most commercial UNIX flavors seems glacial to Linux users and professionals. We’re used to a level of responsiveness from developers that most proprietary software vendors simply cannot match.
Most commercial software companies keep their developers pretty well shielded from the user community. If you have a problem you call support. Depending on the level of support you have purchased that might be someone on a help desk or it might be a higher level engineer. If the problem is a significant flaw in the software and if it affects other customers, particularly large enterprise customers, you may get a patch or a workaround rather quickly. Otherwise, particularly if the product has a fairly slow release schedule, it may be quite a wait.
When it comes to more global issues you’ll likely get little more than an acknowledgment. If there is enough uproar there may even be vague promises. Think of the complaints that Microsoft has endured about security in Windows for the last decade or more. Yes, there have been improvements and yes, Microsoft seems to have changed what was once a very cavalier attitude about security. These changes took years to occur. Even with these positive steps significant complaints about Vista security have already appeared in many IT media outlets and in press reports worldwide. Vista security has already been lampooned in an Apple television ad. Similarly, Oracle has, for years, been very slow to update their database products to work with updated versions of various UNIX and Linux even when the updates fixed serious security vulnerabilities, in effect forcing their customers to endure significant risks on important production servers.
In many Open Source projects the user community has direct access to the developer community and the response, particularly when serious security concerns are involved, tends to be very rapid indeed. Yes, their are exceptions. The Open Source community includes a myriad of companies and groups of individuals. There is no one set of corporate policies that must be adhered to. What there is, particularly in the case of large projects like Vector Linux, is a large number of people, either volunteer or professional, who can respond to complaints, do the necessary testing to verify problems, and respond appropriately when required.
Paid professional support has its place even in the Free/Libre and Open Source Software world. If it didn’t, consultants like me would be looking for new ways to make a living. What those of us who support Linux and various other FLOSS projects do is provide our customers with an assurance of a certain level of response and support that might not be guaranteed if they relied solely on the community support model. Those of us who run or work for small firms who serve small and medium sized businesses also provide a level of comfort that people who know and care about their particular business are working for them. Having said that, it is precisely the community support model and the open access to developers that make consultants like me look good.
This, to me, is where FLOSS developers shine. The ability to respond to changing technologies and the changing needs of the user community amazingly quickly and the rapid pace of development simply has not and probably cannot be matched by the huge organizations that dominate the proprietary software world.