Murphy's Law: Open Source? Who cares!

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http://www.maximumpc.com – Does open-source really matter? Think about it for a second. Do you care if your programs are open-source?  Do you care if companies whose services you frequent are built around open-source technology or not?  Do you care whether their developers, in turn, support other open-source movements or not? If you're not a decision-maker at a company when it comes to IT requirements or business operations, then no, open-source doesn't matter. If you're not a developer who has the knowledge--but more importantly, the time--to invest as much into an open-source project as you receive back from its functionality, then no, open-source doesn't matter either. If you're a typical computer user who wants programs that offer more than what you'd otherwise find in a vanilla Windows installation, then the concept of open-source really has no bearing on you. Open-source matters as a concept. In its execution, however, a vast majority of enthusiasts, average folk, and neophytes could honestly care less. But why is that?  Why aren't we all raising the flag with Linus Torvalds' head on it and parading through the aisles of our local electronics stores in support of the open-source movement? What's Wrong Functionality is the key criteria for whether you're going to grab a program or not. If a given application or utility doesn't satiate your needs--or at least compel you to check it out--then the specifics of the program's birth don't really matter. And even if you like a particular application, it's not as if your mind was just barely won over because the development of that application is shared by a community or not. But therein lies one of the key barriers for open-source adoption. I'm staring at my phone on the train right now, so spare me a quick analogy: I like my iPhone and I like the various applications and games I can download for it. I'd love to contribute to the masses with my own ideas or feature-packed spin-offs of existing apps, but I have no idea how to. I don't feel particularly compelled to invest a large portion of my evenings learning code and, thus, will probably never make an iPhone app of my very own (sorry, MurphMurphTower hopefuls.) Unlike a Web forum where you can gripe about articles, or an online community where you can contribute the next best Hot Topic t-shirt design, you really can't do a thing with open-source unless you fundamentally understand the technology behind its operation. Unless you get the code, you are--and I don't say this to be cruel--a useless member of the community. You can evangelize an application, perhaps in a Web forum or via a witty logo or something, but you can do nothing to physically contribute to the raw essentials of an app. Open-source is beyond your reach. And, thus, you do not care. Open-source is not free. Only, it is. To a typical computer user, open-source is a synonym, not a platform. It's just one more way to replicate Photoshop without having to pay for it, one more way to track projects without resorting to pen and paper. Even if you have a few ideas on how to make a particular application better, you aren't going to be able to singlehandedly realize your dream. Automated Involvement The funny thing about all of this is that, right now, we have applications that surpass common hurdles to development The-Incredible-Machine-style. By that, I mean that applications have been built that grant you powerful access to coding platforms that you otherwise don't understand. You can build iPhone apps without knowing a single line of code using AppMakr or AppOmater. You can create fairly functional Web sites without being able to tell me the difference between a Div ID and a Div Class thanks to BaseKit. Heck, you can fire up a tool like Garry's Mod and build crude, but workable, extensions to Source games. But open-source?  Where are the convenient tools that give novices the ability to effect change in an application?  Where are the GUI-laden tools that take care of the background coding work for me?  Why isn't it easier to get in there and hack, tweak, or extend the functionality of an open application? I think you and I would care about something like that a great deal. David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. (General)