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What makes a piece of open source software enticing to us? For some of us it’s as simple as the out of the box design of the demo and for others it’s the security of the code. It might be that the framework aligns with a project or hobby you are pursuing, or maybe you’re just the curious “install, play, and discard” kind of person like me. Whatever it is, it was enough to make you stop and download, or become a member of a community, or even start a community of your own.

I have been a member and a lurker at many dozens of open source sites and I’ve found a few pretty common guidelines I try to adhere to when sniffing out new site software. I’m sure there are a million others, and you may or may not agree, but these ones are mine.

1. Make sure the software is being actively developed.

I can’t count how many times I have found new software that appears to do exactly what I want for a website idea only to find there hasn’t been a revision in over a year. It’s probably a bad idea to continue falling in love with this script unless you’re a programmer. Building a new site around unsupported software will be like painting yourself into a corner. Avoid it. Maybe monitor it on occasion. Maybe it will be revived one day, but still proceed with caution.

2. Make sure the software has a website of its own.

I know a lot of people put their stuff up on sourceforge.net, but you really really need a website solely dedicated to the project. Before you ask, I will answer you now. For the same reason you never bought jewelry from jimsjewels.geocities.com. See what I mean?

3. Study the community for defects.

This entails becoming a lurker in a community by reading posts, searching for answers, and finding out who are the main contributors. How good is the documentation? The forums? The wiki? Is it organized and extensive? What about the members? How do they speak to each other? I have been in communities that are so nice and helpful and genuinely fond of each other that it’s incredible, and then I’ve been to the communities where people are more concerned with pointing out every forum infraction rather than offering anything constructive. If you find that the folks answering most of the questions also appear to be the biggest whiners, you might not want to waste your time there.

4. Make sure the script has a backend.

For any non-programmer looking for free software, I would strongly recommend staying away from scripts that do not include a back end administration area. Sure, there may be exceptions, but as a general rule it’s just better to stick with ones that have one. You don’t want to be stuck opening individual files and editing code everytime you need a change made.

5. Stick with the scripts that have a demo.

This might not be as important, but it’s definitely a pet peeve of mine. If you don’t have a demo, then how do I know what your software does. Unless you are a clone of a popular script everyone knows, nobody will ever know what they’ve got until it’s installed. And guess what? We’re not gonna take a shot just on the off chance it’s fantastic. I don’t buy cars or houses site unseen, and I don’t choose software that way either. I know some sites have screenshots, and those can work when a demo doesn’t make sense. I still think a site should do all it can to have a demo though. What better way to show the world how great your software is before they ever download it.

Those are my five top guidelines for picking open source scripts and communities. Again, I realize there are exceptions for every one of these, but overall these few statements have guided me well.