I used to live in Minnesota, and not far from where I lived was a COOP which had probably the best produce and fresh food available in the area. Although it was about a 20 minute drive, my family and I made the trip more than once. It wasn't only the food and groceries that had us going there; the atmosphere was a great contributing factor. The staff at this COOP was mostly young and alternative-looking. It was impossible not to get the feeling that these people worked at the COOP because of a shared set of values.
Linux, Apache, Perl, et al have made great strides towards offering incredible alternatives to proprietary systems, not just by providing monetary incentives to potential adopters, but also through the emphatic and energetic support of the Open Source community and by manifestations in wonderful products. The pride which Open Source developers take in their contribution is one of the greatest assets available to Open Source, which wonderfully complements the collaborative Bazaar style of software development (I highly recommend everybody read Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and if you've read it, read it again...)
Even though we have this incredible development model (which even inspires some of the big companies), there is still a perceived problem of support issues. Many IT managers simply prefer a central support location and are not comfortable with "only" searching the Web and posting to newsgroups for answers. Don't get me wrong; I personally have had nothing but good fortune with this type of support, but there are those who aren't comfortable with it. In order to address this issue and make Open Source an even bigger force to be reckoned with, we need to help those who are, at this point, only peripherally interested in Open Source as an interesting movement.
To get back to the COOP I enjoyed so much: Like the employees of the COOP, many (or should I say most or even all) members of the Open Source community believe that what they do matters. We take pride in the systems we run and the code we write. Many of us advocate Open Source as often and emphatically as possible, but in spite of this, progress seems slow when compared to the incredible progress of the quality of Open Source products themselves.
To further the cause of free (in every sense) projects and information, we need to extend the grass roots effort that has spurred many on for quite some time and embrace the world on a more personal level. I know I am not the only one who has assisted friends and acquaintances in installing Linux, but not everyone is able to stumble upon a helpful hand when they have the urge to approach the world of Open Source. If only there were some way to have a place where people could go...
Wait a minute! How about an Open Source COOP? I know it sounds a lot like a Linux Users Group or local Perl Mongers, but it's not so tied to a particular project. It would be a place, perhaps donated by a company with strong ties to Open Source or a nonprofit entity such as a University, and would be "staffed" by volunteers who donate time as needed. Such a group could answer questions and help with problems or even go as far as providing some consulting to businesses willing to give Open Source a try, perhaps for a fee or donation (of money, hardware, physical space, Web space, etc.). Companies which have already embraced Open Source could donate employee time to such a COOP (perhaps by matching hours) and thereby contribute to a movement from which they already derive significant benefit.
This idea may be hard to implement in small communities, but metropolitan areas should be able to find enough volunteers to staff a full time COOP. Smaller communities may need to have only part time COOPs in the beginning, but the growth of the Open Source community suggests that there are many people out there who may have something they are willing to contribute.
It sounds a little esoteric and perhaps naive, but there is a reason people buy shirts that say "Will code for food", and I, for one, would be willing to donate some of my time and perhaps even equipment to such an endeavor. To meet people with a similar ideology and further the cause many of us believe in very strongly would be, in my humble opinion, a wonderful way to make our community (as well ourselves) even better and stronger. In a way, it's just taking Open Source to a more personal and concrete level by making us, as people and Open Source supporters, part of a real physical aspect of Open Source instead of just another piece of email or a search hit online.
Here's to the vision that one day all systems are liberated!