_why not to lie about FLOSS

_why the lucky stiff has vanished. He was one of Ruby’s most curious characters, always treading carefully that thin line between the eccentric and the surreal. His “Poignant Guide to Ruby” was one of the best books about programming I’ve ever read, and certainly the only to have an accompanying soundtrack album. But now he’s gone. His websites, code repositories, twitter stream, etc. have all been deleted.

And, inevitably, some people are moaning about how terrible this is. Not just because the future will be that bit dimmer without him, but instead because of how unprofessional it is that he just vanished without warning and orphaned all his code, and how much work they’re going to have to do now to replace it all in their projects that depended on it. Somehow the actions of the developer have tainted the existing code so much that it’s now toxic to even use.

This is a perennial issue in the FLOSS world, particularly where it intersects with the business sphere. Companies fear they’ll be at the mercy of developers they don’t, and can’t, control, and so some Open Source evangelists assuage their clients’ fears with a lie. Sometimes this is explicit: by promising a wealth of free (as in beer) software, created by great developers all around the world who’ll gladly work with your developers, answer all your questions, and make all the changes you require. More often it’s a lie of omission, touting some of the benefits, without mentioning the possible negatives. What they should be saying is that there is absolutely no guarantee that they people who write this code are not cranky, illogical, unprofessional, hostile, rude, crazy, or even just plain nasty. Many, if not most of them may not be, but from a purely commercial risk management position, you’re better assuming that they are.

Only once you truly accept this can you start to see the real benefits and opportunities. FLOSS is not like commercial software, other than with a price tag of zero. Beyond a few high-profile exceptions there is no support available for most projects. You may have a helpful author, or a mailing list, wiki, or message-board filled with knowledgeable people who’ll give timely, friendly, useful advice for free. Or, you may not.

Pretending you always will is foolish. Assuming you always should is dangerous.

FLOSS does not make this promise. Instead it makes a better one. It provides you the source code so that you can find a programmer anywhere in the world to fix your problem (or do so yourself if so inclined and skilled). And, better still, it uses a license that gives you the freedom to actually do this.

One of the many freedoms of FLOSS is the freedom from vendor dependency. Like all freedoms, it has a price. But perpetuating the myth of a volunteer army of slaves ready to serve your every whim is just a fantasy and like all illusions, leads only to two possible outcomes: disillusionment or insanity.

I’ve never met _why and can’t claim to have known him. But he certainly never matched any of the caricatures of a FLOSS developer — whether good or bad. He always trod his own path. He offered some great software to the world, simply as a gift. Some people assumed that that gift came with implied promises. They were wrong. That doesn’t detract from the software, and it most certainly doesn’t detract from _why. I hope he enjoys whatever crazy path he chooses next.

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