19 ways to do your bit for open source

24th Jul 2011 | 09:00

19 ways to do your bit for open source

Give back to the community and improve your favourite software

Give back to open source: 1-10

It's undoubtedly good to give back to a community you take so much from.

And in doing so, you can also help improve the software that you use every day, both for your benefit and for everyone else.

Here are 19 ways you can help open source projects.

1. Participate

Get involved with other users of your favourite distro or software. Join mailing lists or web forums (I hear there's a good one at www.linuxformat.co.uk) to converse with like-minded users.

If nothing else, you'll learn how others are making good use of the software and pick up some useful tips. It is also the first step to getting involved in other ways.

2. Congratulate

Bad news travels, good news stays at home. It must be disheartening for any software developer, let alone one who gives away his work for free, to hear his efforts criticised.

Positive feedback, even a simple thank you for a new feature you find useful, will keep developers motivated.

3. Share

If you like some software, unless your tastes are really weird it is likely that others will too. Let your friends know about it. If it is also available for Windows, tell your Windows-using acquaintances (real friends wouldn't use Windows), or even give them a copy. Freedom means you can give away as many copies to whomever you like.

4. Report

If you find a bug, or something that doesn't work as you'd hoped, don't whinge about it on a forum or suffer in silence.

Almost all open source projects have some sort of bug tracker, so post a report of what is wrong so the developers can find the fault and fix it. They can't fix what they don't know about, and they don't have a team of highly paid testers – that's your job.

5. Contribute

Open source software is free to download and use, but it is not free to write and make available. Apart from the time spent on a project, there are costs such as web hosting and bandwidth – not everyone uses Sourceforge.

Many projects have an option to donate. If you can afford it, why not let developers have a portion of the huge amount of money you save by using open source software, helping to keep your favourite projects healthy in the process.

6. Advocate

Smaller open source projects barely have enough cash to pay their costs, so there's certainly nothing left for a marketing budget. That's where you come in.

If you don't have the skills or experience to help develop the project, you certainly have the ability to help promote it. You don't have to be an open source zealot, or the next RMS, just let people know what you use and why.

7. Help

When you have gained some experience with a program or distro, think back to when you were a newbie and others helped you. Is it time to repay the favour? Can you help the next generation of newbies get to grips with the software?

The forums and mailing lists have questions from users at all levels – there must be someone you can help and it will make you feel good about yourself in the process.

8. Patch

If you understand the language the program is written in, help by trying to fix a bug. A small but annoying bug is a good place to start – something the developers don't have time to deal with – but you could try fixing it and then send them a patch.

9. Translate

Even if you have no coding ability whatsoever, there are ways you can help, such as translating documentation or the programs themselves. If your language is not available, or poorly translated, offer to help out. It will cost you nothing and may even get your name in the About dialog.

10. Document

documentation

Open source software is often criticised for being poorly documented. Programmers do not always make good manual writers, especially for their own programs. Whether you offer to write some formal documentation or simply add some nuggets to the project wiki, you will be helping other users by sharing your experience.

Give back to open source: 11-19

11. Convert

Advocating your favourite software or distro to other open source users is good, but what about the real challenge of getting those who only know 'The Dark Side' to experience freedom?

There are plenty of programs, apart from the obvious OpenOffice.org and Mozilla choices, that are available cross-platform, affording plenty of opportunity to give your Windows-using colleagues the chance to experience the quality of open source (not just closed source freeware).

12. Test

All users of open source products are testers (the same is true for paid software, they just don't admit it) and you don't have to be experienced to help.

To the expert, anything is easy, it often takes the inexperienced user, or complete newbie, to point out the unintuitive way some programs perform some tasks. If you think things could be done better, say so.

13. Request

It is often said that programmers start a project to scratch their own itch, but users have itches too. If a program doesn't do quite what you want, file a feature request on its bug tracker or discuss it on the forums?

You will probably find others want something similar and might gain enough support to motivate someone to code the feature. Even if you don't program yourself, you can still help this way. Just remember, though, this is a request and you have no right to expect any feature you do not code yourself.

14. Criticise

"I like positive criticism" is as big a lie as "the cheque is in the post", but constructive criticism does help. If you think something could be better handled, say so, but in a way that helps to improve it.

"X sucks" will get you ignored, "X would work better if done like this because..." may get you thanks, and a better program.

15. Code

If patching to fix a bug doesn't satisfy your need to contribute, how about extending the software by adding a feature, either to the core code or as a plugin?

One of the benefits of open source is that it encourages good coding style, as plenty of people will see it, making it easier for others, or you, to jump in.

16. Gloat

Let's be honest, we've all felt quietly smug hearing Windows users discussing the price of software or their concerns about malware.

Do your friends a favour and be openly smug. Let them know that you are not only unconcerned about these things but that you generally don't even think about them. Show them that one of the greatest freedoms of open source is freedom from fear.

17. Customise

A default setup is the state that exists between installation and the user finding the preferences editor.

Would Ubuntu really have survived so many years of brown were it not so easy to change? Do you have a goodlooking desktop? Then why not share it on gnome/kde/xfce-look.org?

18. Be nice

Never forget that most open source programmers do it for little or no financial rewards, and none from you (unless you choose to donate). So be polite, whether it is asking for features or reporting bugs, and remember to demand only those rights that were included in the purchase price.

19. Just do it

It doesn't have to be big, but do something now. Prevarication is easy – although some of us work hard at it – but where would we be if all those open source developers waited until tomorrow to scratch their itch?

The first step doesn't have to be big, earth-shattering or even particularly helpful, the important thing is to get involved, then take it from there.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 146

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