March 4, 2006

"Software released under an open source license" is no longer news

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

We get tons of press releases touting the release of this or that program as open source. Thanks for letting us know, PR people. But you need to understand something: While we're glad your client or employer chose an open source license, it's such a common decision these days that it's no longer newsworthy in and of itself.

A PR boast that irritates me even more is "based on open source." I don't know how many times I've seen this phrase in press releases, but it's enough that it tends to activate my "delete" reflex. To me, claiming something is "based on open source" is a pure marketing pander. If the company actively supports an open source project and has some sort of secret sauce add-on program they sell separately from it, fine -- say so. But "based on open source" says nothing. The entire Internet is "based on open source."

The only time "released under an open source license" is really news these days is if the software is in a category that doesn't yet offer many open source alternatives. By this criterion, open-sourcing a database is not news because there are plenty of open source databases already, but a fully-realized, consumer-usable open source income tax computation program would be worth major headlines.

One last PR-ism that's guaranteed to start my finger quivering over that "delete" key: "Plans to release..."

Uh-huh. I plan to earn my second million dollars this year, too. (Everybody tells me the second million is easier than the first, so I'm going straight for the second million.)

I've seen so many software release dates blown in 10 years of writing about this crackpot industry that when someone gives me a future release date for any piece of software, no matter how it's licensed, you can hear a giant WHOOSH! as their words rush into one of my ears -- and immediately rush out of the other one.

Real open source software news

A significant release of usable software is news. Not going from version 2.2.1 to 2.2.2 but to 3.1 -- and the increase in utility, stability, or features needs to justify the big version number step. Ask yourself: "If I have read a review of the previous version of this software, is this new release different enough to be worth reading a fresh review?"

If your answer is "yes," then the new release is news. If your answer is "no," it's not.

Note that I'm talking about an actual release we can download and test, not an announcement. Our readers (and most other tech news sites' readers) actually look at, care about, and comment on product reviews. Product announcements -- or worse, "executive briefings" -- draw hardly any attention.

If your product is typically used in business or enterprise environments, we're more interested in talking to a customer or visiting a customer installation than in talking to you. Once again, this is because our readers are more interested in how things work in real life than in how you say it works. Not that we don't trust you, but ...

These basic "how to get attention" rules apply whether you are one of a few developers working on a new project, or working for the marketing department of a multinational commercial software company that is just starting to work with the open source community. Follow them, and you'll get all the headlines and other attention you deserve. Fail to follow them, and chances are your project won't get nearly as much interest as it should.


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