The Good And Bad Of Open Source

If you’ve been following the trials and tribulations of my homebuilt DVR, you’ve been listening to the good and bad of open source software.

To quote Richard Nixon, I am not a thief.

The software I’m using has been built for the common good and released under licenses that allow fairly free use. That includes the operating system, Linux, the DVR’s framework, MythTV and all the utilities I use, including an excellent program called ffmpeg.

Ffmpeg is like a Swiss Army Knife for video files. It allows the movement of these files into different formats. That’s valuable under a variety of circumstances, including mine.

In order to watch what I’ve recorded online from anywhere (and that’s my goal) I need to be able to convert the DVR’s nuv files to Flash compatible flv files. Ffmpeg should do that, and in a way which can be automated.

I’m bringing up ffmpeg, because it’s a sign of what’s good and bad about open source.

Part of the good is its free availability. That allows ‘hackers’ like me to play around in a sophisticated area of computing with readily available tools. There are all sort of additional programs built around ffmpeg. It’s like seed corn.

Part of the bad, is how these programs are supported – in other words, what happens if you get stuck? There’s no company behind it, so no company to call!

Ffmpeg depends on community based support, which runs through a mailing list. If you understand the program, you’re encouraged to share your knowledge.

When I began to have trouble, I signed up for the list, posted my question and waited… and waited… and waited.

Someone saw my question, took mercy on me, asked me to provide some error outputs and then… nothing. I sat and waited some more.

As I posted again, looking for help, members of the community responded, but they also complained about how I was posting and the fact that I was using the most current version of ffmpeg on their website – an old version.

At some points more of the conversation was about procedure than problem solving!

I jumped through hoops, doing whatever anyone asked, to try and get things working. No matter what I did though, ffmpeg failed me in the exact same way.

I was willing to put up with this stuff, though I was getting perturbed. I wonder how many others would have just bailed?

If open source is to be ‘ready for prime time,’ the spotty response to cries for help needs to be made a little more friendly. I was made to feel like a jerk or idiot or both. That’s not good. And believe me, I understand I have just bitten the hand that feeds me.

OK – so I’ve vented about what’s wrong with open source. But, there is a silver lining to this story and something that’s very right with open source.

I believe my problem was caused by a bug in the software, or maybe a part that was just never fully implemented. One of the developers saw my cries and modified the program to accommodate my needs!

Would Microsoft do that for me? I doubt it.

Tonight, when I get home, I’ll load another version of ffmpeg that should solve my problem – and will be available in the future for others like me.

Companies like Microsoft worry about open source. Why would anyone buy Windows or Office if they could get the same functionality for free?

Right now the big difference is support. It might not always be that way. It is today.

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