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On the Internet, literally terabytes of Unix sources for systems and applications software, service libraries, GUI toolkits and hardware drivers are available for the taking. You can have most built and running in minutes with standard tools. The mantra is ./configure; make; make install; usually you have to be root to do the install part.

People from outside the Unix world (especially non-technical people) are prone to think open-source (or ‘free’) software is necessarily inferior to the commercial kind, that it's shoddily made and unreliable and will cause more headaches than it saves. They miss an important point: in general, open-source software is written by people who care about it, need it, use it themselves, and are putting their individual reputations among their peers on the line by publishing it. They also tend to have less of their time consumed by meetings, retroactive design changes, and bureaucratic overhead. They are therefore both more strongly motivated and better positioned to do excellent work than wage slaves toiling Dilbert-like to meet impossible deadlines in the cubicles of proprietary software houses.

Furthermore, the open-source user community (those peers) is not shy about nailing bugs, and its standards are high. Authors who put out substandard work experience a lot of social pressure to fix their code or withdraw it, and can get a lot of skilled help fixing it if they choose. As a result, mature open-source packages are generally of high quality and often functionally superior to any proprietary equivalent. They may lack polish and have documentation that assumes much, but the vital parts will usually work quite well.

Besides the peer-review effect, another reason to expect better quality is this: in the open-source world developers are never forced by a deadline to close their eyes, hold their noses, and ship. A major consequent difference between open-source practice and elsewhere is that a release level of 1.0 actually means the software is ready to use. In fact, a version number of 0.90 or above is a fairly reliable signal that the code is production-ready, but the developers are not quite ready to bet their reputations on it.

If you are a programmer from outside the Unix world, you may find this claim difficult to believe. If so, consider this: on modern Unixes, the C compiler itself is almost invariably open source. The Free Software Foundation's GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) is so powerful, so well documented, and so reliable that there is effectively no proprietary Unix compiler market left, and it has become normal for Unix vendors to port GCC to their platforms rather than do in-house compiler development.

The way to evaluate an open-source package is to read its documentation and skim some of its code. If what you see appears to be competently written and documented with care, be encouraged. If there also is evidence that the package has been around for a while and has incorporated substantial user feedback, you may bet that it is quite reliable (but test anyway).

A good gauge of maturity and the volume of user feedback is the number of people besides the original author mentioned in the README and project news or history files in the source distribution. Credits to lots of people for sending in fixes and patches are signs both of a significant user base keeping the authors on their toes, and of a conscientious maintainer who is responsive to feedback and will take corrections. It is also an indication that, if early code tends to be a minefield of bugs, there has since been a thundering herd run through it without too many recent explosions.

It's also a good omen when the software has its own Web page, on-line FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) list, and an associated mailing list or Usenet newsgroup. These are all signs that a live and substantial community of interest has grown up around the software. On Web pages, recent updates and an extensive mirror list are reliable signs of a project with a vigorous user community. Packages that are duds just don't get this kind of continuing investment, because they can't reward it.

Ports to multiple platforms are also a valuable indication of a diversified user base. Project pages tend to advertise new ports precisely because they signal credibility.

Here are some examples of what Web pages associated with high-quality open-source software look like:

Looking at Linux distributions is another good way to find quality. Distribution-makers for Linux and other open-source Unixes carry a lot of specialist expertise about which projects are best-of-breed — that's a large part of the value they add when they integrate a release. If you are already using an open-source Unix, something else to check is whether the package you are evaluating is already carried by your distribution.