Part of our job at RedMonk is to answer questions about free and open source software. For the most part, it’s an enjoyable job, because it’s an interesting subject and the questions themselves are an opportunity to learn.
What’s unfortunate, though, is the frequency with which some of the same questions recur. Like the undead, the cursed things just won’t die. Even if you don’t mind answering the same question over and over, it’s fairly clear that there remain widespread misunderstandings about free and open source software, which is not likely to prove beneficial to adoption, usage and participation.
So what to do?
We’ve been thinking about just that question at RedMonk for a while, not least because more than a few of our customers and friends have similarly struggled with the issue. A number of remedies have been proposed and discarded over the past few months, but despite the vetting of a number of possibilities, none of the various options from forum to wiki separated itself from the pack.
Separately, we spend a fair amount of time looking at the question of social software. Not least because a wise man once observed that “these days, almost all software is social software.” Not surprisingly, then, we’ve been paying close attention to sites like Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood‘s Stack Overflow.
Like a lot of you, I’m sure – one of the folks I’ve previewed our little effort with claimed to be Stack Overflow’s biggest fan – I enjoy that site as much for the way its authors seamlessly baked in social components as I do the content. This led, inevitably, to the idea that it offered one potential model for addressing the open source questions that we felt were going unanswered and undocumented.
The effort to build something comparable, however, was daunting, particularly since we already have a few projects running. With all due respect to this guy, we didn’t see Stack Overflow as something that could be thrown together “in a weekend.”
Fortunately enough, we didn’t have to. The creators of Stack Overflow have logically and kindly decided to make their platform available, commercially, to other interested communities. And a lot of interested communities there are. But none, regrettably, that targeted the kinds of free and open source questions we – and many of you – answer repeatedly.
So we spun up an instance, which can be found at www.fossfaq.com. We’ll be using it to ask and answer questions relating to free and open source software, and we think you might find it useful for the same reason. There’s an FAQ on FOSS FAQ available here, but it being me, you know there’s a Q&A coming.
Q: What’s FOSS FAQ all about?
A: The basic idea is to take the questions that we all answer – whether by email, in person, on blogs, and so on – and document them openly, in one place. Think Doc Searls “answering emails in public,” if all of your email was about questions relating to free and open source software.
Q: What kinds of questions do you expect people to ask?
A: I expect to be surprised, actually. Mostly because I already have been.
But in the meantime, we already have some interesting questions and answers available. Bill de hÓra asked a really interesting question about what linking means in the context of an IP connection. PostgreSQL’s Josh Berkus, meanwhile, asked and answered an excellent question about how to choose a license for your open source project. Palm’s Dion Almaer asked why you’d choose the Apache license over the GPL, or the MIT. Eclipse’s Ian Skerrett asked how you might convince a boss that his company should participate in an open source community, and GNOME’s Stormy Peters had an answer for him. Our own Tom Raftery wanted to know about good open source video editing solutions, while Cote is curious about the best licensing choices for cloud provider’s SDKs.
That one still hasn’t been answered, incidentally. Nor has Chris Tirpak’s regarding usage of Apache 1.3 vs 2.x.
Q: So in essence, you’re hoping for a Stack Overflow, but for FOSS?
A: Yep. It’s just that simple.
Q: What’s the “social software” angle? I’m not familiar with Stack Overflow.
A: There are a number of different elements, from voting – which ranks and prioritizes answers – to badges, which are marks of achievement that you earn by participating on FOSS FAQ.
Q: So it’s like Foursquare, but for answering FOSS questions rather than hitting bars?
A: Pretty much, yes.
Q: Why are some people answering their own questions?
A: If they’re like me, because they a.) get asked the particular question a lot and b.) know the answer. But I’m sure there will be plenty of unanswered questions to come, as we’re seeing already.
Q: How can people help?
A: Give the site a look. Ask the questions that you have, answer the ones that you know. Recommend it to a friend. Twitter or blog about it. This site, like other community efforts, is basically a function of critical mass. We’ve got a great start, and if you have suggestions on site improvements, potential partnerships and so on, just let me know.
Q: Why does the site design suck?
A: Because I did it. That’ll improve in time: patience.
Q: How does FOSS FAQ relate to existing free and open source forums and discussion areas like, say, the Ubuntu Forums?
A: Well, the intention is for FOSS FAQ to address the more horizontal questions, leaving the distribution and project specific queries to those types of venues. But ultimately, the site will serve whatever purpose the users ask of it, given that they’re the ones in charge.
Q: Why do I have to use www.fossfaq.com rather than fossfaq.com?
A: Because I have to request the latter from support. It’ll get here.
Q: Who’s paying for FOSS FAQ?
A: Currently, no one, because the StackExchange guys aren’t charging while it’s in beta. Once it becomes a paid service, RedMonk will be absorbing that cost.
Q: Is the software that powers StackExchange open source?
Q: Isn’t that kind of hypocritical, to run an open source site on a closed source platform?
A: Maybe, but as I noted in the FOSS FAQ FAQ, there really aren’t any credible open source alternatives available. eWeek’s Jason Brooks was kind of enough to remind me about Shapado, but I didn’t feel comfortable launching with a .1 release. The good news, however, is that FOSS FAQ will – post-beta – provide you with a dump of the database, so presumably at some point in the future when Shapado or another alternative like SOClone is sufficiently mature, we can make the jump.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: I’d like to sincerely thank all of the site’s “beta testers” and previewers. I really appreciate their feedback, advice, criticism, ideas and support.
We’re really hoping that proves to be a useful resource for all of you. Let’s not keep answering the same questions. If we can offload those to FOSS FAQ, we should all benefit. Any other questions, post them here and I’ll answer them.