Why would paid-for support be better?

Last Saturday evening, I sent an e-mail to a low-volume mailinglist regarding IMA problems that I’m facing. I wasn’t expecting an answer very fast of course, being holidays, weekend and a low-volume mailinglist. But hey – it is the free software world, so I should expect some slack on this, right?

Well, not really. I got a reply on sunday – and not just an acknowledgement e-mail, but a to-the-point answer. It was immediately correct and described why, and helped me figure out things further. And this is not a unique case in the free software world: because you are dealing with the developers and users that have written the code that you are running/testing, you get a bunch of very motivated souls, all looking at your request when they can, and giving input when they can.

Compare that to commercial support from bigger vendors: in these cases, your request probably gets read by a single person whose state of mind is difficult to know (but from the communication you often get the impression that they either couldn’t care less or they are swamped with request tasks so they cannot devote enough time on your request). In most cases, they check the request for containing the right amount of information in the right format on the right fields, or even ignore that you did all that right and just ask you for (the same) information again. And who knows how many times I had to “state your business impact”.

Now, I know that commercial support from bigger vendor has the burden of a huge overload in requests, but is that truely that different in the free software world? Mailinglists such as the Linux kernel mailinglist (for kernel development) gets hundreds (thousands?) mails a day, and those with request for feedback or with questions get a reply quite swiftly. Mailinglists for distribution users get a lot of traffic as well, and each and every request is handled with due care and responded to within a very good timeframe (24h or less most of the time, sometimes a few days if the user is using a strange or exotic environment that not everyone knows how to handle).

I think one of the biggest advantages of the free software world is that the requests are public. That both teaches the many users on those mailinglists and fora on how to handle problems they haven’t seen before, as well as allows users to first look for a problem before reporting it. Everybody wins with this. And because it is public, many users are happily answering more and more questions because they get the visibility (with acknowledgements) they deserve: they gain a specific position in that particular area that others respect, because we can see how much effort (and good results) they gave earlier on.

So kudos to the free software world, a happy new year – and keep going forward.

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