Human touch key to open source success

Internet-conveyed misunderstandings waste time and could be avoided through meeting in person, says HP's Linux CTO

Despite being distributed across the globe, and communications being largely conducted online, open source projects can benefit immensely from direct human contact, says one of the fathers of Debian Linux.

Bdale Garbee, who is also HP’s Linux chief technology officer, is a big fan of “The Meatspace” as way to further development efforts. This probably comes as a surprise to people accustomed to hearing that the open source movement has flourished courtesy of the internet.

Most open source projects feature developers collaborating through network tools such as mailing lists, internet software repositories, (with version control), wikis and newsgroups.

However, Garbee, who visited the Auckland branch of HP, after taking part in the annual regional Linuxconf in Australia, says the human touch matters a great deal. There is no way to replicate the gamut of nuances that characterise human interaction, he says. On the contrary, it’s easy to waste time with internet-conveyed misunderstandings.

As an example of the benefits of meetings, Garbee mentions a small graphics conference last year. The key graphics device and application developers got together and met some of the people using what they create — digital artists.

Garbee says one of the developers of Inkscape, an open source vector graphics editor with capabilities similar to Adobe Illustrator and Freehand, watched how an artist used his program. As the developer saw what the artist did with his program he discovered a better way of doing particular tasks.

Garbee served as Project Leader for Debian between 2002 and 2003, but is now more involved in governance and management. He is also the president of Software in the Public Interest (SPI), a non-profit organisation that aims to help other entities create and distribute open-source software and hardware.

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