BUSINESS SOFTWARE

Usenet: Where the Pros Go For Open Source Help

Forget web forums. If you really want support for open source, fire up your newsreader.
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The big myth about open source software is that there is no place to get support. But the real truth is that there is no central place to get support. There is no single vendor for open source software and often even the developers do not offer any handholding beyond an online (and usually cryptic) manual.

In place of vendor support, open source users can turn to an online society of users who trade questions and answers with each other - some who know what they're talking about and some who don't. Among the often unreliable are discussion boards on open source topics, because they are often populated by newbies who aren't experts on open source. The real pros do not hang there. So where are they? They are on Usenet.

Usenet is the world's largest online chat center, though it is little known - despite its roots back to the beginning of the Internet. In those early days, the Internet was the mainstay of mostly scientists and researchers using e-mail to exchange messages. Later on, a system called Usenet was developed. Usenet is a huge collection of bulletin boards on tens of thousands of topics.

Usenet is in some ways similar to mailing lists, but instead of getting and posting messages via e-mail, it is based on a program called a "newsreader." Outlook Express has a built-in newsreader, and stand-alone readers exist, as well. Once properly configured to the Usenet newsgroups of your choosing, you may post a question. The question then becomes propagated to all the servers in the world that carry that group and will be seen by all who follow the group.

How many Usenet groups are there? More than 50,000. ISPs such as AOL or SBC or Comcast usually carry the 30,000 to 40,000 most popular. When you configure your newsreader, you can download your ISP's list of groups and scan the list for groups of interest to you, but it may be easier to find groups through a keyword search, a function of the newsreader. Here's an example: Say you want to find all the groups that relate to the popular open source graphics program GIMP (similar to Photoshop). Enter "gimp" in a keyword search and the following results are returned:

  • comp.graphics.apps.gimp

Enter "mandrake" (a popular Linux distribution) and get:

  • alt.os.linux.mandarke

But Usenet is not just for technical topic discussions. "Desperate Housewives" watchers are also turning to Usenet to find like-minded aficionados, too, at alt.tv.desperate-housewives.

When it comes to open source software, Usenet is the mother lode of support. Just like the neighborhood tavern where regulars often meet, Usenet is where the open source experts hang out and are eager and happy to help others who are using a particular program. These regulars are often called the group "gurus" and seemingly know everything about their topic.

It's easy to post a question and wait for an answer to be e-mailed back to you and the group (and most often you will get one), but how do you research the archives? Probably the easiest way is to use Google Groups. Type in a questions such as "why won't GIMP print" and will return previous answers from a range of groups. Often this will be enough.

While the web can offer some strong sources for support, when it comes to open source, Usenet is often far better, quicker, and easier. It's where the pros hang, and you should, too.


Alan Canton is the president of Adams-Blake Company, Inc. of Fair Oaks, CA. Adams-Blake Company provides the JAYA123 web-based "back-office" application for small and mid-size businesses. The company has standardized on Apache, MySQL, PHP, and runs Slackware 9.1 Linux on all of its desktops. For office automation, they use both Open Office as well as Microsoft Office running under Crossover Office by CodeWeavers.

Last updated: May 26, 2005




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