KDE needs 'contributors, not users'--really?

An open-source developer is missing the forest (users) for the trees (contributors).

Occasionally, intelligent conversation erupts online--this time as the KDE open-source community tries to figure out whether it needs users or simply contributors. Jason Harris suggests:

KDE, like many other open-source projects, doesn't really need users at all, whether they are poisonous or not. What we need are contributors: that's the life-blood of our community, what keeps KDE growing and evolving. To the extent that users can and do become contributors, I will grant that we need a userbase as a pool of potential future contributors. But I am simply baffled by any argument that we "need" to have a large number of people that never do more than use KDE.

Given that Harris is apparently not trying to make a living directly from KDE, his view is understandable. It is true that open-source projects flourish when people contribute code, rather than passively digest others' code.

But for anyone hoping to build a business around an open-source project, users are critical (even if one of Harris' KDE compatriots may not think so). Who else is going to buy support/add-ons/etc.?

With that in mind, it's important to remember what will make an open-source project relevant to contributors. The answer? Users. Also, who is going to indicate to the contributors/developers which features are important to satisfy their needs and encourage more users? Users. It's a virtuous cycle. The more users, the more contributors (salaried and otherwise), and the better informed those contributors are.

The real challenge in my view is in figuring out how to turn a significant percentage of users into customers, but then again I'm coming at the question from the exact opposite perspective of Harris. With enough (paid) users, contributors can also be paid/encouraged to participate. Just look at what IBM, Intel, Red Hat, and others have done for Linux.

In sum, I think Harris has missed the forest (users) for the trees (contributors), and KDE suffers as a result.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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