Matt Asay tackled the question of whether open source software support is better in response to Coté's original piece about the potential parallels between the two. And it dawns on me that strong community support not only leads to better support but is also a function of effective sales engineering. Providing community [free] support remains one of the best methods of engaging the non-paying user. What remains to be explored are the dynamics of providing free support as a gateway to capturing customers. I've attempted to explain why finding out more about the non-paying user is vital to the success of open source operations, so as a cross link, there is quite a bit of overlap between better understanding non-customers, providing support for their participation and gaining more paying customers.
Typically, open source software itself is viewed as the antecedent compulsion to seek services and support from a qualified vendor. Perhaps a software asset works out well and is being put into production or maybe it needs to be heavily customized. At that point, perhaps the end-user organization will seek out the sales arm of a commercial open source vendor and initiate and progress through, what is for them, the procurement cycle, for the vendor, the sales cycle. Mostly this ends in a customer win for the open source vendor and the [projected] revenue that comes with it.
Yet this entire process keeps the vendor in a reactionary state, leaving it unprepared to act upon winning the silent, potential customer. In essence, the default approach to open source business operations sports a shorter, less complicated sales cycle in exchange for keeping the large majority of its user base hidden in the shadows. This is very easily considered profound if you, as I, side with Savio's approximation that only about 0.001%-0.01% of the user base becomes paying customers.
As it stands, support provided free-of-charge within open source communities is demand-driven (as it should be) whether it comes in the form of freely available documentation, open access to non-real time communication (forums/message boards), or interactive other forms of interactive support (i.e. IRC). Unfortunately there is a fundamental disconnect between existence as a typical non-paying user/consumer of free support and entering a participative relationship, one which exists partly because most fringe users aren't remotely aware of how they will benefit from gaining more visibility within an open source community.
There is hardly a liaison between the intersection of individual perspective, the open source software community and the commercial infrastructure behind it. The result is that a heavy majority of users figure they don't need and/or can't benefit from engaging in the more involved dynamics of the community. Meanwhile open source vendors aren't able to identify those outside of their customer base who might be at the fringe towards drawing them closer towards the community nexus.
I'm firmly convinced that active participation by larger percentages of an open source community will lead to more creative forms of business relationships which provide value for customers and revenue for vendors. Thus far innovation in the area of support and services has remained incredibly stale in terms of leveraging the innovative potential of open source as a platform. Offerings seem to be shallow, knock-offs of what's traditionally offered in the proprietary realm. The bottom line is, giving that 0.001% - 0.01% a boost will require providing more value-add.
For example, what about providing support for sharing the risk and reward of making an investment in open source software? In such cases, organizations would be able to share custom, in-house additions with the larger community under the terms of support for the give-backs where integration into development streams and commercial support is guaranteed. Another possibility might be integration tracks where users would be encouraged to contributing experience integrating with other open source in exchange for community support of the integration process itself.
The above are just two hypothetical examples...the possibilities extend as far as the distinctions between user, participant and customer can be expanded and even blurred. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the barriers between starting as a user, becoming a valued active participant and being able to pursue a business relationship if appropriate, such that a natural progression exists between the states. This is going to require reaching out to the peripheral and seeking to make it less feasible to remain disengaged and/or inactive...a good thing if you ask me.