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The power of openness and community

I'm a believer that even a proprietary system can benefit from opening up their technology to an interested community.  A small example that I witnessed provides an illustration.

It's been pretty well documented about the minor problems that the recent daylight savings time (DST) change caused computer systems, cellphones etc.  It also caused an issue for Tivo.  As an owner of an old, Series 1 Tivo, I was subject to the cosmetic problem that for three weeks the time on my Tivo and the guide data would be off by one hour.

As I first started investigating this problem, I was monitoring various discussions on the Tivo online community.  Like many online communities, this site is full of zealots and enthusiasts whose energy and interest never ceases to amaze me.  But, as a casual traveler who is looking for an answer, you can find out an awful lot with some searches.  You do have to wade through lots of noise to find the good stuff, but that's a subject for a future post.

One good thing about the TivoCommunity is that support and marketing people from Tivo actually monitor the forums and weigh in from time to time.  This is great for both Tivo and for the users who can hear the truth from their vendor.  On the DST issue, the offical Tivo statement came out that Series 1 Tivos couldn't be fixed to avoid the DST cosmetic issue.  Of course, as this is only software, it really meant that Tivo wasn't going to invest the resources to update the software for an older platform as they did for their newer ones.  Some users were annoyed, but most, like me, were resigned to the realities of diminishing support for older products.

But, Tivos run Linux.  There is a very active Tivo hacking community.  Although not officially sanctioned or supported by Tivo, it is tolerated.  It turns out that one Tivo hacker came up with a very simple, elegant way to run some scripts on a Series 1 Tivo that fixed the cosmetic issue of the clocks being off by an hour.  The scripts were posted, debated, tested, and modified by the community.  They worked, and the Tivo hackers were happy.  But, only a small percentage of Tivo users are willing to download special software into their Tivo.

Luckily, Tivo monitors this activity and their engineers liked this fix.  They tested it, made some changes of their own, and made it available to their customers in an official, supported version.  It's great that a vendor would be open-minded enough to incorporate the suggestions from their user community so quickly.  And, without having a system capable of being opened up and an active community of users who can extend the system, this fix wouldn't have been made.

Every system can benefit from opening up the code and letting the user community play around with it.  This doesn't have to mean losing control of the technology or having to support unstable systems.  It just means that your bugs get fixed faster and new features come online more quickly.


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