Why mythtv being free software is cool

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I've got a silly little bug with my MythTV installation. On the 'welcoming' screen there is a section of text that tells you what all the tuners are upto. It scrolls through each tuner telling you if it's idle, or if it's recording a show.

I have one working tuner at the moment. But on this screen it scrolls through 5 different tuners, which is reflective of the history of the system as I've tried different things. If this was a bug in a proprietary PVR I'd have these choices:
  • live with it
  • wack around in the user interface trying to stumble across a way to fix it
  • check the instruction manual for help on fixing it
  • contact the manufacturer for help fixing it
  • trawl the internet to see if anyone else has worked out how to fix it
Note that the last option is really just outsourcing some of the other options. It's been my experience that instruction manuals would be very unlikely to cover this bug (they are mostly about how to plug in a device and do the basics), and I'd be very surprised if it was possible to connect to someone at the manufacturer who could help, or who would help.

With free and open source software there is another option. You can download the source code, and see how that feature is implemented. This is a real game changer. Even if you don't know how to program it's a game changer. That's because source code is sometimes readable to someone who isn't an expert in the particular programming language (as is the case with me and mythtv, which seems to be written in C++). But also because this alters the dynamics of the last option I listed above, about trawling the internet. Now other people on the internet can browse the source, and may mention how you can fix it (or they might just fix the code in the software, and everyone benefits). Furthermore free software projects (such as mythtv) are often collaborative projects that assemble around them a culture of openness and helpfulness. So it can be much easier to find someone to ask for help.

This is all about freedom. Freedom to tinker, to tweak, and of course possibly freedom to break things you use. Manufacturers aren't normally interested in selling you freedom, they want to sell you a product. And then they want to sell you another product. Perhaps if you find subtle limitations with the first product, that might help them sell you another product.

For my mythtv box I worked out that there is a 'capturecard' table in the database mythtv uses, which I can probably just drop the extra entries from. Haven't tried that yet, as I'm not sure which entry is the still working one, and it could break my system completely. But that's ok, I'll be able to fix it if it does, and I have the freedom to try.

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