September 17, 2003

Free software support? Works for me

- by Lee Schlesinger -
What do you do when you have a problem with proprietary software? Go to the vendor. What do you do when you have a problem with free or open source software? Take it to the streets. And -- surprise! -- the word on the street is just as good as the word from on high.

For instance: This week I was trying to install Wine as part of a larger project. I downloaded the RPM file for my SuSE system, but I was unable to install it because of failed dependencies. I noodled around with commands on my system trying to find what I needed, but without success. Where to turn?

Support step one: Look on the Internet. I did Google searches against both Web sites and Usenet newsgroup archives. The key here is using relevant search terms. I was able to find messages that pointed me toward packages I needed to install to resolve most of the dependency problems.

Unfortunately, I had one nagging problem I couldn't solve, and it only takes one to prevent the installation from going forward. It seemed as if no one had had quite the same problem I did. So it was on to ...

Support step two: Post to Usenet. I found an appropriate newsgroup, comp.emulators.ms-windows.wine, home for Wine discussions, and posted a message detailing my problem. Then I waited. And waited. (Maybe time doesn't pass more slowly when you need technical support, but it sure seems like it.) By the next morning my question had gotten no response. It's hard to tell whether that's because the newsgroup doesn't get much traffic or because the question was a stumper, but either reason looks the same when your fingernails are bloody stumps.

Support step three: Join a mailing list. Frequented by users with interest in and experience with specific applications, mailing lists and online discussion forums can be a font of knowledge. I visited Wine HQ and discovered several mailing lists users can take advantage of. I signed up for one and asked my question. Twenty minutes later I had my first response. Within an hour I had the solution I needed. Thank you, Thomas Chiverton and Ivan Leo Murray-Smith.

Oh, the problem? Though I had downloaded the latest version of Wine for SuSE Linux, it was an RPM designed for version 7.2, not 8.2. Should the package name, wine-20030813-SL7.2.i386.rpm, have been a tip-off for me? Probably. I've already sent myself into a corner to think about what I did.

The point, however, is that I was able to get answers from a variety of sources, including an answer that solved my problem, fairly quickly and without financial cost.

Now let's contrast that with support from a proprietary software vendor. Telephone support is available from many vendors, but most of them charge for it, because phone support requires the employment and training of live human beings, and human resources are costly resources. I've had mixed luck with telephone support -- some reps really know what they're doing, while other just bring up scripts on their computers and walk you through them. In those cases, I don't know why the vendors don't just put the scripts up on a Web site.

Many vendors provide online knowledge bases you can search on their sites, and which are often accessible via Google searches as well. I appreciate any vendor who makes such information available; often, they have just what I need in their archives.

Most vendors also provide online support forums staffed by employees. These tend to have good information, but I haven't always gotten my answers very quickly, and generally only after a "conversation" of multiple posts over several days.

And proprietary vendors are known to make use of Usenet as well. Microsoft and Symantec, for instance, have large numbers of newsgroups for their large numbers of products. Both company support staff and other users can help those with problems.

So which is better -- relying on the kindness of strangers or depending on the company that developed the software you're using? My intuition tells me the latter, because companies have a vested interest in keeping customers happy, but my experience shows me very little difference. I've had excellent luck finding answers to most of my free software support questions from Google Groups. In cases like this week's that require more help, the open source community steps forward with the right assistance.

Many organizations are concerned about adopting free and open source software because it often lacks a dedicated support staff. In my experience, lack of support is not an issue.

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