Feedback: What is Missing in Open Source Software Development

Having written open source software myself, and being a subscriber to mailing lists, etc, there is a realization that the number one thing missing from smaller open source projects is feedback from users.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

I start with some background: I developed a small open source package to fill a need I had a while back. Wanting to give back to the community, and having a few friends express interest in it, I released it under the GPL and placed it on Sourceforge and Freshmeat. Being familiar with open source since 1991, this was trivial. Not being familiar with the amount of help I would receive in terms of user feedback was something I was not ready for.

Example, someone writes application X, which is open source and used on platform Y. This developer puts their package out and people (more than a few) find it useful. Unless this developer is extremely talented, there comes a point in time that the developer will run our of ideas so to speak. New features and bugfixes are easy to come by in the initial stages of development, but as time goes on it gets more difficult (in some instances) to think up truly useful features. Is it that the software is “complete”? Is it that this is all it was meant to do? In some situations the answer could be yes (e.g. software to check the time. There could be a limited amount of things to do with that 🙂 If the developer knows in the back of their mind that it is not complete, but has a hard time coming up with new features, they would (I think instinctivly) rely on the community feedback to come up with new ideas or catch bugs. This is not how it works out in some cases.

Large corporations have the resources to perform studies and hire many programmers who can share ideas and come up with new features and add ons for software. In an open environment, it is the users and developers that must come up with features, and user feedback will aid in bug tracking. I am not saying that this is not the case in open source software, but it does not seem to happen a lot for smaller packges. For instance, the linux kernel, gnome, kde, X, etc, are extensive packages that get a lot of attention. When one looks at smaller packages, for instance a small spam filter, the number of users might be high, but the discussions in the mailing lists and chat rooms are low, and generally fall into the realm of “how do I get this missing item I need to complie?” or similar questions which can be covered in a FAQ. It is a little disturbing for me as an open source participant to see that in some cases it is difficult for developers to get input.

My example: Looking over my logs, I see that many people download my software (if they use it or not is another thing). Again looking over my email list I see that only three people have evey written in to inform me of a bug (bugs that I missed), and apart from those, only two have suggested improvements to the software. To be clear, I am not here to complain, I am pointing out that I have spoken to others (with more popular software than I have) who claim the same types of response. On asking them how they think about new features, releases, fixes, and add ons, mostly they claim they would like more user input. After all, the end user is the person who will be most familiar with the end workings of the software.

I suppose this rambling is more of a call to the end users of software. You may think that developers do not want to be botherd with emails, chats or messages about bugs or added features and improvements. Indeed, some of them do not. However, I think that a lot of developers would more than welcome creative end user input. After all, it is input from the actuall users of the software that make it better. No number of geeky developers sitting in a meeting room of some large corporation will ever know what the end user really wants, and the information they receive could be filterd down to them through research groups and opinion polls. I am not knocking them, just pointing out (again) that end user input is critical. In my mind, it is the thousands of small items that make open source software great, and not just the “top 20” software packages alone.

Next time you download and use open source software that you feel is useful, and you think of some way to improve it or find a bug, do the community a favour and send a (nice) email/note/IRC msg back to the developer(s). They may appreciate it more than you know.

About the Author:
B.S. in Computer Engineering, M.S. in Physics. Currently
working as a microsoft server babysitter (Systems Admin) and writing software in my spare time. Looking for more research oriented work.


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