Thursday, July 31, 2008

Walking away from bugs

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to an open source committer is to meet someone who tried your software, ran into some problem, and just walked away. Did you check the error log? Did you ask on the newsgroup/mailing list/forum? Did you file a bug? As a committer, these questions roll off your tongue. After all, open source is a collaborative effort, and success depends in large part to the collective effort of the community. Walking away like that is just not good citizenship!

Or is it?

Recently I needed to evaluate some plug-in code that was written on a Ganymede-based target platform. For reasons not important here, my development environment is based on Europa at the moment. Eclipse has great support for these cases, however, and setting up various target platforms is routine for me. So, I go and set up the necessary target platform, load the evaluation code into my workspace, and set up a launch configuration. Right – so let's run these plug-ins and see how they work. The splash screen appears and shortly after – bang! It dies with an error* Strange. I've been developing open and closed source plug-ins for Eclipse since V1, and have dealt with all sorts of platform configurations and error conditions: never saw this one before... Mess around with the launch configuration, read config.ini (like the error message suggests); nothing helps. Ok – off to an internet and Bugzilla search for the issue: clearly I must be doing something stupid, because Europa should be able to launch Ganymede-based target platforms (right?). Hmmm... some discussion about this type of error, but nothing seems to fit my case. Try launching the target platform directly, and it works fine. A few more minutes of searching, a few more minutes of messing around with settings. Finally, I walked away.

And then I thought about it. Why did I walk away, and what does that tell me about open source users who do the same? Well, in my case, and I suspect this is common, the reason was pretty simple: my task at hand was to evaluate the plug-in code, not to debug an Eclipse launch failure. I was trying to use Eclipse to work on another problem, not on Eclipse itself. I could get the information I needed in another fashion, and that's what I did. Now, being an open source committer, I felt a little guilty: surely I'm not walking away, but rather I'll get back to that problem. I'll do The Right Thing and check all possible avenues: I'll read everything I can about it on the net, I'll ask on the newsgroup, I'll file a bug and follow up. Yes, yes I will! I will get back to it, right after I get these other things (that I'm paid for) done... Then again, maybe not (to be realistic).

I even felt guilty about writing this blog entry. Who I am to complain when I haven't done my homework? But then I realized that something larger was interesting: my attitude toward the whole situation. Maybe a kind reader will point out an answer for my problem, one which will probably seem entirely obvious, if I had looked in the right place. If so, thanks! But fixing this specific issue is really not the point. Maybe you'll flame me: You don't understand how open source works, you've got to engage the community! To this I'll answer: You don't understand your users! How many of them have walked away silently?

When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine was doing his Ph.D. In the physics department at MIT. Maybe it's a measure of what it takes to operate at that elite level, but he once told me (without pride or arrogance, but simply matter of fact) that he was never shy about asking a question in class, because if he didn't understand something, it was the professor's fault for not being clear.

Just to be clear (because I don't mind being flamed, but prefer to be flamed for what I actually meant): I'm not blaming the Eclipse platform or any other Eclipse project/committer for the error I encountered or my inability to fix it quickly. Rather I am just pointing out the observation that I feel compelled to do a lot of work before raising an issue, and I wonder if this “barrier to the question” is the reason why people walk away. If so, what can be done?

*java.lang.IllegalStateException: Unable to acquire application service. Ensure that the org.eclipse.core.runtime bundle is resolved and started (see config.ini).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Returning to the planet

It's been a while since I last blogged. In blog years, that's like a lifetime. I guess it's because I've been reincarnated in a new job and in a new role. It's taken me a while to get settled in my new environment and to figure out how, if at all, I should continue to blog.

My new position involves creating Eclipse tools for JBoss ESB, and there's no shortage of things to do. :) And, yes, it's all open source. I'll continue to blog about the same sorts of things that previously appeared in this blog, but also include more about SOA and plug-in development in Eclipse.

For now, I'll just make a general observation, which has been guiding my use, selection and development of tools recently: the Linux Hater says: "The best code in the world won't change the world if people can't use it."