Bug out

Problems in software belong to users as well as providers. Open approaches to reporting help recognise this - and make good commercial sense
Written by Leader , Contributor

The operating system is going to be late. Last-minute decisions mean a last-minute delay — more testing needed, says the organisation, and a bit more integration. But the reaction isn't what you might expect: with a few minor reservations, the users and developers are positive and supportive. "It's worth it," they say.

The operating system in question is Ubuntu's Dapper Drake, the first 'enterprise class' release of the increasingly popular consumer-grade Linux distribution. The reason everyone is so sanguine is that the thinking behind the delay and the detailed status of the project are all entirely public. You have the same access to the project's internals as does Mark Shuttleworth, head Ubuntoid. Vista's equivalent list must make fascinating reading, but Bill still has a lot to hide.

For open source, online public bug and feature tracking isn't just sensible, it's essential. With none of the corporate resources for marshalling closed-room testing cycles and no possible issues of secrecy, open source developers have found that public forums provide invaluable information and context for prioritisation.

There are many bonuses for users, who can find out not only if a wanted feature is in or on its way, but how long it'll take, what others think and the details of what's planned. Moreover, they can provide just the right feedback to just the right people to get their voice heard and understood.

Closed software companies fear that revealing one's thoughts and deficiencies is bad PR — or that competition will steal the best ideas and develop them faster. Neither phobia holds water: while Microsoft is busy battling rumours that up to sixty percent of Vista's media centre code is being rewritten in a panic — no, we don't believe that either — the Ubuntu community is busy discussing whether its current six-monthly upgrade cycle could be adjusted to better match enterprises' two yearly habits. Openness is only bad PR if the truth is bad PR. As for giving away secrets: well, don't worry about your competitors. Your customers come first.

There are signs that Microsoft is beginning to get the message. It is ramping up an Internet Explorer 7 public bug reporting system, even if it's not quite as fully featured and open as the open source equivalents. That's a start, even if it is a late addition to one of the most overdue upgrades in the known universe.

Consumers have few-enough rights when it comes to software: the ability to open the bonnet see what's right and say what's wrong goes some way to compensate. In time, we hope, it will be unthinkable to launch commercial grade software without it: as it is, the absence of such a mechanism gives us all plenty to think about.

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