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The paradox of FOSS projects supporting Windows

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FOSS applications for Windows don't seem to get the same respect and support that their Linux counterparts do, even when they are genuine 100% GPL or BSD or whatever a person's favorite license is. Some say they are good introductions to FOSS; some think they're tainted and nasty and prop up the evil monopolist.

This blog was written a few months ago by an Inkscape developer, Bryce Harrington, and it is one of the better analyses I have seen:

"A point I often hear made is that having a good Windows port of Inkscape will "increase it's popularity." Perhaps, however popularity by itself isn't valuable - it needs to be translated into something tangible. For proprietary software, increased userbase means increased income, which allows hiring more developers to fix the bugs that the increased number of users are reporting. For free software projects, popularity doesn't bring value quite so directly..."

Which is a point that is always overlooked by the "World Domination At Any Cost" crowd- attracting hordes of Windows and Mac refugees doesn't necessary benefit FOSS projects, as the KDE4 near-riots demonstrated. The complaining was unbelievable; all those disappointed users behaving like spoiled brats instead of members of a community that depends on community contributions and support. As Aaron Seigo and Bruce Byfield noted:

""There's still very much a consumer model in people's minds and not a participatory one." In other words, some users, rather than trying to contribute to the project, reacted more as customers who had a right to demand satisfaction, and as though the only way they could get their complaints addressed was by causing a disturbance."

Bryce Harrington goes on to talk about a "C/U ratio", or contributors-to-userbase. A higher C/U ratio means stronger support for the project, and greater satisfaction all around. But:

"...with a low C/U ratio, increasing popularity may simply bring with it piles of bug reports and frustration by all involved. With few new volunteers coming in, existing ones risk becoming burned out, and the C/U ratio continues to decrease."

Like Aaron Seigo, Mr. Harrington also theorizes that Linux users are more tech-savvy and accustomed to the idea of being contributors, and Windows users are conditioned to being passive consumers with only two options for handling problems: yelling, or purchasing a different product. The foundation of Microsoft's core business plan is eliminating the second option, so Windows users get a lot of yelling practice. So a large influx of Windows users can swamp a FOSS project with demands but no help. Inkscape's Windows port has a larger userbase than its Linux version, but not a correspondingly larger contributor base:

"It's sort of ironic, that many of us got involved in Inkscape to further the aims of Open Source with the intent of getting people AWAY from Windows, yet since there aren't enough Windows contributors to cover all the problems particular to that platform, here we are with an expectation that we spend extra time supporting it. Do Not Want!"

But where are new FOSS users going to come from? It's worth reading the whole article and the comments. There isn't a simple answer.

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