Now don't get too excited

We're all in this business because of the excitement of the latest product release, right? Wrong -- you might be, but I'm not. No, in IT publishing we get our thrills from seeing you get excited in response to what we print.

We’re all in this business because of the excitement of the latest product release, right?

Wrong -- you might be, but I’m not. Occasionally something will come onto the market and provoke a “Hey, I’d like one of those”. Gadgets (like the Toshiba handheld featured in Toy Box) can usually be relied on to get that response. But then I ask myself, would I spend the money (about $2000 for the the e740 — it has built-in wireless LAN capability – very nice), and my interest soon passes.

No, in IT publishing we get our thrills from seeing you get excited in response to what we print. Often, of course, it’s stories based around technology that get you going. If you’re excited by products, we’ll write about them, even though they might represent only an incremental advance on the version released a year ago. With those stories, we need to work a bit harder to find out what it is that’s going to matter to you; when we do, we share in the excitement, which hopefully comes through in the story, encouraging you to read it. Phew, that’s enough publishing psychology for one editorial.

Almost. Sometimes, it’s not technology that strikes a chord, but an industry-wide movement. That’s what we’re tapping into now, in the open source software world.

There’s enormous interest in open source. Okay, not necessarily among the country’s biggest users of IT. (Although if you lump all government agencies into one – as they’re themselves intent on doing to help strike a better deal with Microsoft – you have one vast IT user organisation. While they’re busily trying to sew up a new Microsoft licensing deal, they also tell us they’re conscious of the open source groundswell … but not ready to become part of it.)

Chiefly the open source buzz is heard in the user and advocacy groups. We’ve been noticing it since writing stories such as Tru64 loss to be Linux gain, All eyes on Linux, IBM: 18 months until Linux breakthrough, Linux gets big in Christchurch and Linux just a blip: integrators ... The buzz is occasionally derisive, as when we wrote G Numeric instead of Gnumeric and Adiword instead AbiWord in the same story (if software developers can blame end-users for the unexpected “features” of their programs, reporters blame sub-editors -- they really need to be brought up to speed on this open source stuff).

The buzz is of a community avidly consuming every item of gossip, genuine news and helpful hints relating to open source systems. When politicians say “we’re neither for nor against open source”, then do multimillion dollar deals with Microsoft, the community hisses; when journalists betray their imperfect grasp of the nuances of the open source way of life, the community snorts; when bosses of big IT companies question the commercial viability of open source systems, the community leaps down their throats; and when a community member asks for technical help with some obscure problem, other members rush to their aid.

The buzz is so persistent even Microsoft is noticing it. Steve Ballmer, the boss, talked about it in an interview with Computerworld US this month. He’s correctly identified it as coming from the open source “community” of interest. And – wait for it -- Microsoft too. Typically, when Microsoft wants something, it buys it. But that’s not an option with an intangible like this. The interview shows no evidence that Ballmer’s worked out how to get a community of its own. He’s still at the questioning stage. “How do we use community as a tool? How do we support community … ?” are things he’s still puzzling over.

Well, here’s a hint: don’t imagine you’re going to build a Microsoft community by undermining the open source one. That was the sort of tactic resorted to by Microsoft New Zealand at an event in Tauranga this month. Such ploys will only set one community against the other.

Computerworld’s hearing the community buzz and wants to do something positive about it. This issue carries the first of what will be a locally written monthly column (The Source) dealing with open source issues and products. We’re more than happy to have the open source community – and any other that Microsoft or anyone else gets off the ground – guide us in what we cover, in that column and elsewhere. That way we can keep you excited, and us too.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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