One of the main forces of the open source world is the active participation of the user community. The community can be defined as a group of contributors – the users themselves provide contributions of many kinds that are integrated into software as part of a development project. The community may or may not include an internal team of developers working for a vendor.
This does not prevent community users from participating in other ways in the software lifecycle. Quite the contrary, users may offer different levels of contribution that could be symbolised by concentric circles that are increasingly distant from the core of the software – from the development of a major component and participation in forums and wikis, to bug reporting and enhancement requests.
Even if most are not directly involved in the core of the software, community users offer significant value by developing or improving peripheral functions. For example, community members of open source data integration software develop connectors that enhance the coverage of the solution, enabling them to interface with third-party software. Generally created to meet specific needs of the user, these connectors are then often contributed to the community
In addition to discovering bugs in the normal course of the software use, and reporting them to the vendor, some users also specifically test new features. Because of their diverse environments, contributors offer much more extensive opportunities for experimentation to open source solutions than the QA teams of traditional vendors, who usually struggle to recruit beta testers among their customers.
Meanwhile, users of open source solutions detail their own experiences using forums that are accessible to the community. Any question published on a forum can receive a number of responses that provide effective and free support for a user facing a particular technical problem, especially during implementation.
Aside from the purely technical work, some contributors offer additional expertise. For example, leading open source companies should provide the vast multicultural and multilingual user community with the opportunity to translate the user interface into their respective languages, making the technology even easier to use and adopt.
Distinctive to the ‘Open Core’ model (the “core” product is free and completely open, while some high value-added features for large projects are provided under a subscription license), the paying client community also offers a significant contribution. By paying their annual subscription for commercial licenses, they also participate in developing and improving solutions (paid-for by the vendor), which ultimately benefits all users – paying and non-paying alike.
In a broader sense, the user community as a whole supports the project’s success simply by downloading and using the solution, which creates a critical mass that reinforces its success while increasing its reputation.
In all, even though open source data management companies have a dedicated development team – essential for controlling the roadmap and development cycles of future releases, but also an important factor in responding to the changing market and preserving the technological advance of a company – communities are extremely active in all of the areas just described.
And prospects are not mistaken: if they highlight the overall quality of open source software (performance, scalability, standard compliance) after conducting comparative studies, the contribution of the community in all support or development matters is often one of the factors that influences their final decisions.
Of course, some proprietary vendors go to great pains to create copycat communities (although they only rarely offer forums or bug tracking modules). Even if some clients gather in user groups, these groups are either 100% controlled by the vendor – who does not guarantee their independence – or they form an opposing force in response to the unilateral decisions of the vendor, which is less productive in terms of constructive dialog.
Thanks to open source technology, new life has been provided into the software market. In the past, the traditional development model rarely considered user requests for product developments because it first and foremost strived to create new revenue streams. Open source technology has made this model obsolete by actually placing the user at the centre of the vendor’s concerns. Once separated, customers and suppliers are now in the same boat, for the benefit of the formers.