Modes of technical support in open source software - peer to peer digital knowledge creation, sharing and re-use
Open Source Software (OSS) movement owes its popularity and success to the highly motivated individuals who develop and maintain the software. In the recent years OSS products have extended their reach beyond the highly technically skilled users such as programmers to the common users of technology. For example, products like Mozilla Firefox have completely brought OSS to the non-technical and average computer user. By the development model of OSS there is no professionally organized technical support that is available to the users of OSS. The technical support that exists for all the levels of users of OSS can be found on the support section of the software website and is a peer to peer help giving process among the user community. The support section of these websites houses the different types of online communication channels through which technical support can be given and received. These communication channels can be synchronous like chat or asynchronous like discussion forum, email, etc. The objective of the current research is to identify these channels of communication that are being used by the users of OSS. Since the support that is provided is not being done by professionals but by the communities of users of the software, there is no standard procedure of this help giving channel or process. In this study the author identifies these digital channels of communication by conducting a survey across multiple OSS products and evaluates them for usability, effectiveness and re-use. This research will be extremely valuable in understanding and improving the process of Digital Knowledge Management for technical support. From the existing paraphernalia of the digital communication channels, this study will isolate the most relevant and successful channels for technical support.
Research in OSS has examined many issues including the evolution of the developer community [1, 7], developers' motivations , adoption in commercial businesses [8, 12], the culture of developers , policy issues , and problem solving . There have been only a limited number of multiple-project studies [2, 9], reflecting the early stage of OSS research, the complexity of the phenomenon and the difficulty in obtaining comparable data across projects. Missing from almost all the OSS literature is much consideration of end users and their problem solving approaches. As noted by Stewart  “The least explored areas of OSS success included in the model are user impact and the role of user factors……users may vary in their ability to use and benefit from OSS based on factors such as their technical expertise.” Maass  sums up the present status of OSS field research as “most empirical studies on OSS communities concentrate on secondary logging information such as that provided by mailing lists, IRC chat logs and code repositories.” The paper by Lakhani and von Hippel  is the only one that looks at technical help for OSS, but it is mostly concerned with motivation, trying to answer why people bother to help others, and not really examining how the help unfolds, what are the channels that are used and how effective and usable these channels are in managing digital knowledge which is what the objective of this study is.
Research Questions and Research Methods
This project aims to identify all the mechanisms of communication being used in the online technical support communities of Open Source Software and evaluate them on the following basis.
- 1.What are the different mechanisms available for technical support to the users of Open Source Software?
- 2.Conduct a usability evaluation of each of these technical support mechanisms
- 3.Which one or the set of which modes/mechanisms is the most effective in solving the technical support mechanisms?
- 4.Which one or the set of which modes/mechanisms exhibits the most re-use capability?
Significance of Research
This research is the first study in which the digital communication channels are being evaluated for technical support. The results will be very useful in developing the online support section of open source software websites and general technical support that is being done online. Since the activities of digital knowledge management practices of open source software users have never been studied with this perspective and detail, this is as a very important contribution to the community of open source software. Since in OSS nobody is being paid to help others, the efforts in understanding and improving these help giving processes will be very beneficial to the community by saving time of the entire community by making the processes more effective. Also the developed prototypes from this study will be used as a basis for the development of a robust, usable digital knowledge management system for open source software. The results of this study will be included in the next project proposal for system development.