Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

DesktopBSD Day 8 – What's the community like?

It’s hard to imagine a viable open source desktop with long term perspectives without some sort of community. Such a community would consist of persons that are active in developing and maintaining the desktop , of those that use it intensively and offer support, advise and hands on assistance when needed. There appears to have grown some basic structure for such a community, consisting of various channels of communication. You have your IRC channel for immediate, quick-and-dirty interaction. Then the ubiquitous forums where users can drop their questions. And there is the wiki with all sorts of more static information. A more traditional form of communication, the mailing lists, appears to be of limited use for more end user oriented desktops.

I do wonder how long the current channels of communication remain of use. When it comes to novice W2L migrators both the IRC and the forum model seem less than ideal. Even when you are used to searching forums for the information you need, it still becomes an issue of sifting out the good from the bad advice. But, this is something for another article. Today I want to check out the DesktopBSD community and it’s online resources.

Estimating the size of the community

In the world of Linux and open source it is always tricky to estimate the amount of people actually using the operating system. The BSDstats projects aims to get a better picture of how many BSD systems are out there. It gives a monthly report that looks like this:

Percentage Change in September from August:
Overall +12.8%

Broken down as:

DesktopBSD -12.4% ( 542 hosts)
DragonFly 0.0% ( 20 hosts)
FreeBSD – 7.4% (5008 hosts)
GNU/kFreeBSD -20.0% ( 4 hosts)
MidnightBSD +50.0% ( 3 hosts)
MirBSD -55.2% ( 13 hosts)
NetBSD +21.2% ( 126 hosts)
OpenBSD -15.5% ( 71 hosts)
PC-BSD +38.3% (6980 hosts)

The program used to report your existence to the project (bsdstats) is not enabled by default (PC-BSD is assumed to be the only one), which make these figures tenuous at best. However, one would expect a relatively new *BSD to have an enthused following that goes the extra mile to make itself known. When you install DesktopBSD enabling the bsdstats option is simply a matter of ticking a box, so no barrier to participate there. From this perspective one could conclude that the DesktopBSD community is smaller than the PC-BSD community.

This estimate is validated by the DesktopBSD forums. It reports 1.505 registered users who wrote a total of 8.886 articles. Since I had some time to dig deeper I went to the members list and noticed that 1.268 users had four posts or less. Broken down the picture looks like this:

0 posts 661 users
1 post 284 users
2 posts 159 users
3 posts 104 users
4 posts 59 users

Again, it is dangerous to draw solid conclusions but a group of 661 users than registered, but never participated (not even asked a question) might indicate a group of new users that gave DesktopBSD a try, where interested enough to register in the forum, but then moved on to something else. As a developer of a user friendly open source desktop that would be group I was interested in.

There are 16 users with more than 100 posts. Oliver Herold, moderator of the DesktopBSD forums, is solely responsible for 1.318 posts. Peter Hofer, chief developer, has 395 posts. It would be safe to conclude that there is a very small but involved community at present. By the way, there are only 181 unanswered posts in the forum with quite a few that wouldn’t require an answer anyway. When you have a question, chances are good you get the answer.

It is possible to get a more visual display of active/ involved users. The team set up a Frappr map here: http://www.frappr.com/desktopbsd. When you glance the locations where DesktopBSD fans are living you notice a somewhat larger concentration in Central and Eastern Europe.

The buzz around DesktopBSD

I don’t like hypes. If you want to turn me away from something, just make sure it becomes a hype. On the other hand, you do need to have some buzz around your open source desktop if ever you want to mature beyond just you and your friends. So, what’s the buzz around DesktopBSD?

For starters, DesktopBSD is still young. Version 1.0 was released in March 2006. For a young entrant the no. 31 position on the Distrowatch list isn’t too bad. Using Google Trends for a somewhat broader perspective the picture is less rosy. Compared to FreeBSD and PC-BSD, DesktopBSD is definitely the junior member of the family, though you see a more stable attention for it in the last couple of months. This would indicate that the buzz -small though it is- stays around.

The third online resource I checked was Digg. DesktopBSD really still has to make an impact there. There are barely two pages with references to DesktopBSD and then mostly release notices.

The online resources and their quality

I haven’t used the IRC channel as extensively as I should, so I will hold off judgment there. The few times I went online there were always a few people lurking around, though not much of an interchange. However, some more monitoring is needed to draw a more solid conclusion.

The mailing lists are few and activity is low. I guess with such a small team and community there a quicker ways than to use the mailing lists.

I already wrote something about the forums in quantitative terms. While glancing over the content of the forums you can not escape the quality of the answers. The response is mostly straight and to the point. Once discussions seem to branch in various directions, the moderators are quick to move each discussions to it’s own thread as to keep the whole thing clean and accessible. Kudos for that.

Compared to that the wiki is somewhat of a disappointment, but the team is quick and honest enough to admit it. The documentation is still in it’s nascent stage. Currently there are a few howto articles in the wiki. On the other hand -and I mentioned that in an earlier article- there is a serious effort to inform the end user when he/she makes use of -for instance- the Package Manager. With limited resources the focus on explanation and assistance on the desktop (instead of an online resource) is not only valid, but fitting for the target audience.

The team understands the balance and the choices that have to be made. Oliver Herold -responding to a question whether PC-BSD and DesktopBSD might merge somewhere in the future- said the following:

I appreciate their steps toward a “usable BSD”, but it’s a step to far for us. It’s of course somewhat a tightrope walk, between “just BSD” and “addressing the beginner” but it’s worth the try. Let’s face it, there is no “easy as in”, even MacOS is hard to understand for someone who is accustomed to Windows or doesn’t know a computer at all. So there will be learning involved, day by day. Saying so otherwise is just hype. If you’re stuck in e.g. Ubuntu, because something doesn’t install or isn’t proper configured, you have to have knowledge or you have someone at hand who will do the tricky part for you. That’s the reality. And if someone doesn’t like OpenOffice, well he can easily deinstall it and use something different instead. Greg Lehey (The complete FreeBSD) e.g. wrote his complete book in the markup language sgml, together with Emacs. So in the end, important isn’t the tool, but the content.

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t fault this no nonsense realistic attitude.

P.S. I will be out of town for a few days. The series continuous after that

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