Long time reader Greg writes:
Why do you think that even though Arch’s userbase numbers have exploded during the last year, the number of contributors (not counting the AUR) remains almost the same?
Well Greg, here are my opinions on the issue. I should point out that these are my opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Arch developers as a whole.
Firstly, I tend to agree with this sentiment. Over the last six months to a year, there has only been one new person that has stood out to me as developer material based on the contributions they have made (and one who just will not accept the position no matter how much we ask – you know who you are!).
I think the primary reason for this is a very large change in userbase. The earliest comment by me that I can find noting this change was in the middle of 2008. A lot has changed since then (I was not an Arch developer or forum moderator then and I am now getting a Mac…), but the change in userbase has continued over the years. I think Arch has changed from what was a “Do It Yourself” distribution to one where people expect a lot of help. This is very evident on the forums, where very basic questions are asked on an hourly basis. People think there is a lot of “RTFM” on the Arch forums these days, but ask those same questions on the forum three years ago and that would be considered a polite response. It seems that despite the large increase in the number of users, the number of people with the skills required to fix a problem that they notice has not increased at the same rate.
The second reason I see is that there are less things to be fixed in Arch. The only reason I started contributing to Arch is so that I could fix things that annoyed me and that continues to be my primary motivation. I can imagine that the distribution as a whole runs rather smoothly from a users point of view, at least compared to historically. Also, a lot of the “easy” bugs in the user visible parts of the distribution have already been fixed, so the barrier to entry is higher. Saying that, I have made a couple of patches to pacman itself in the last few weeks and I still know next to nothing about the actual pacman codebase (I focus on makepkg). So there are still reasonably easy pickings for motivated individuals to get themselves familiarised with the code before tackling harder issues.
Finally, I think there is becoming a gulf between developers and users. Perhaps this is an entirely unintended side-effect of the change in userbase. I know that many long term Arch users (including some developers) found the change in the types of questions being asked and demands being made on the forums quite demotivational and now spend far less time there. This means less interaction between users and developers, resulting in the developers being seen as quite a separate group. From a developer point of view, this could not be further from the truth. Arch is a “community distro” and contributions from the community are strongly encouraged. Remember that the x86_64 port started as a community project. If a user comes up with a good idea, and more importantly provides some code or implementation to back it up, it will be considered by the development team just as it would if a developer suggested it. Equally, developers make suggestions that are not taken up (trust me… I have had ideas rejected, taken out the back and shot before being buried in a shallow grave in a forest). But remember, talk is cheap. There have been many, many threads about the importance of package signing in pacman, but no-one has but in a decent effort to get this completed.
In short, we need more community members to step up and help out wherever they can. The core Arch development team is relatively small and our continued progress (beyond pure packaging) relies on contributions from the community. Even packaging could use more people (and we do take applications to become a developer from known community members). I am sure that there is something that annoys every user about their system. Why not try and fix it?