I used to live in Minnesota and not far from where I lived was a COOP, which had probably the best produce and fresh food available in the area. Although it was about a 20 minute drive, my family and I made the trip more than once. It wasn’t only the food and groceries that had us going there, though. The atmosphere was a great contributing factor to our journey. The staff at this COOP was mostly young and alternative looking. It was impossible to get the feeling that these people worked at the COOP because of a shared value set.
Linux, Apache, Perl et al have made great strides towards offering incredible alternatives to proprietary systems, not just by providing monetary incentives to potential adaptors, but also through the emphatic and energetic support of those within the Open Source community and manifested in wonderful products. The pride, which Open Source developers take in their contribution is one of the greatest assets available to Open Source, which wonderfully complements the collaborative Bazaar style of software development (I highly recommend everybody read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar and if you’ve read it, read it again …)
Now that we have this incredible development model, which even inspires some of the big companies, there is still this perceived problem of support issues. Many people and IT managers simply prefer the availability of a central support location and are not comfortable with “only” searching the web and posting to news groups for answers. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally have had nothing but good fortunes with this type of support, but there are those who aren’t. In order to address this issue and make Open Source an even bigger force to be reckoned with, we need to help those who are, at this point, only peripherally interested in Open Source as an interesting movement.
To get back to the COOP I enjoyed so much. Like the employees of the COOP, many (or should I say most or even all) members of the Open Source community believe that what they do matters. We take pride in the systems we run and the code we write. Many of us advocate Open Source as often and emphatically as possible, but none the less progress seems slow when compared to the incredible progress of the quality of Open Source products themselves.
To further the cause of free (in every sense) projects and information we need to extend the grass roots effort that has spurned many on for quite some time and embrace the world on a more personal level. I know I am not the only one who has assisted friends and acquaintances in installing Linux, but not everyone is able to stumble upon a helpful hand when they have the urge to make the step and approach, or even enter, the world of Open Source. If only there was some way to have a place where people could go?
Wait a minute! How about an Open Source COOP? I know it sounds a lot like a Linux Users Group or local Perl Mongers, but not so tied to a particular project. A location, perhaps donated by a company with strong ties to Open Source or a non-profit entity such as a University, and “staffed” by volunteers who donate time as needed. Such a group could answer questions and help with problems or even go as far as providing some consulting to businesses willing to give Open Source a try, perhaps for a fee or donation (monetary, hardware, physical space, web space.) Companies who have already embraced Open Source could donate employee time to such a COOP (perhaps match hours) and additionally further contribute to a movement from which they already derive significant benefit.
This idea may be hard to implement in small communities, but larger (metropolitan) areas should be able to find enough volunteers to staff a full time COOP. Smaller communities may need to only have part time COOPs in the beginning, but the growth of the Open Source community suggests that there are many people out there who identify and may have something they are willing to contribute.
It sounds a little esoteric and perhaps naive, but there is a reason people buy shirts that say “Will code for food” and I for one would be willing to donate some of my time and perhaps even equipment to such an endeavor. To meet people with a similar ideology and further the cause many of us believe in very strongly would be, in my humble opinion, a wonderful way to make our community as well ourselves even better and stronger. Hey, in a way it’s just taking Open Source to a more personal and concrete level by making us as people, and Open Source supporters, part of a real physical aspect of Open Source instead of just another piece of e-mail or search hit online.
Here is to the vision that one day all systems are liberated!