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Hello everyone and welcome to another exciting month of The Answer Gang. There have been a lot of fun things happening this month -- Linux turned 10 years old, if we count its "birthday" as the day when Linus sent his initial message about it to the minix newsgroup. And there was Linux World Expo in San Francisco this month.
Attendance at a local party thrown in the park to celebrate the birthday was pretty good. In fact the local organizers were afraid we'd overflow the park... but, as it happened, we didn't. A great time was had by all (just how did they get a working fridge onsite? Wow.) and the park felt we were so organized that we're certainly welcome to do other events there. For that we can thank two things: the effort put in by the local Ham operators to keep things together, and the general habit of the Linux folk to leave the park cleaner than we left it. I showed up late but there were still lots of soda and some burgers left.
The LWE conference was not so well attended. I'm sure the "dot bomb" has had something to do with this. There weren't as many toys, there weren't as many people, there even wern't as many reporters hanging out in the press room rushing their interviews to press. But I did see some very cool software there anyway. We'll probably be seeing some articles come in during the next few months.
Now for my rant of the month. I've been watching as the notes about shabby customer service roll through. Lots of people come to the Gang for help, not because they had any idea there is a community of helpful people here, but because they've been driven to search engines in desperation after being blown off by the corporate support they thought they had paid for when they got their product.
The worst offender from a Linux user's point of view has got to be Sony. Not only have they made special efforts to blow off Linux users in the press, but this particular one takes the cake - from the Debian Laptops mailing list, archives visible over at debian.org:
BTW, a funny thing happened to me when I wanted to register the laptop online on Sony's Vaio site. It didn't work, so I sent an email to support, saying that I can't register. Told them that I use Linux/Mozilla, and asked if that's a known prob. The next day I got a replay, saying, paraphrased "We don't support that OS. If the hardware is damaged through that OS, you're on your own. Also we have no programs to download for that OS" and so on, in unfriendly tone for lines and lines. I asked back if they have gone crazy, it works fine, thank you and I don't want to download anything. Just want to register the darn thing like any other customer. Next day I got a reply: "We apologize for the autoreply". I guess they have a filter like "if body contains linux|bsd then reply 'f**k off'".
Turning on the way-back machine, I remember a time, not that long ago really, when real people answered the main phone line for companies, and directed your call. Okay, so they weren't paid much, in fact they were a glorified portion of the PBX system, but they were a little brighter than the "phone tree" (you know, press 1 to get bored to death, 2 to stay on hold until your ears melt, 3 to get lost in a maze of twisty menus). They really did have an interest in directing your call accurately (if they do then they never have to worry about your call any further) and it gives people a great feeling to reach a person - even though we know perfectly well it's not the right person yet. They might be able to listen to your tale of confusion amongst their products and pick the right sub-department that you don't happen to know about. In one step, not seven.
The sad fact is, open source, great as it is, doesn't guarantee any pixie dust will be applied to your customer service either. I've seen some of these mailing lists. Heck, we've gotten our share of flames here at TAG, being occasionally grumpy about some oddity of Linux life even as we answer someone's question. And this is where we have an editor throwing out stuff that doesn't look like it relates. Some people on the general lists out there need to go stand in a corner for awhile. Just because a question looks like it came straight out of the FAQ doesn't mean you shouldn't actually READ it before trying to answer it... it might only be similar. And, the world changes - last years FAQ might answer today's odd case incorrectly. So keep those FAQs up to date.
(Yeah, I know, fine one I am to talk, the Past Answers Index is so old it's growing blackberries. Anyone out there want to give a shot at updating it?)
Nothing gets someone's ire up much faster than making them feel foolish for using your product. There's two ways they can use that ire - to fix things, or to vote with their feet. So anybody staying in the commercial, proprietary world should continue to pay attention to their customers ... since obviously they aren't allowed to change anything, unless it's through YOU. The other thing about open source is, the world has gotten pretty big. The odds are quite good that if someone has dreamed up a piece of software, so has someone else, in a different garage, possibly on a different continent. And yes, with a slightly different outlook on life, but probably close enough (especially since we have source) that they are not trapped in your product, not hardly.
So the value add if you want to get well known (and not evilly so) is to not only have a good product that works for you, but keep your enthusiasts cheerful on your lists. Have a bug tracking system that encourages better bug reports than "uh, it broke". Nail bugs when you've got 'em or report back why things are getting pushed around on your schedules. Actually consider some of those things that were "as designed" and get complaints, to be documentation bugs or the subject of your next redesign. And get those oddball cases to try out your overnighter code. Lastly, don't be afraid to say when you've gone and gotten a new life, and someone else should take up the project now. In the case of proprietary projects shelved like this, consider releasing them once they no longer have direct value for you. (It might turn them into some advertsiing for the company, at least.) Make it easy for your projects to live on their own, and they'll make you proud.
The sanity you save may someday be your own...