Examining some Open Source Myths

Like any semi-religious debate, the rhetoric between the Open Source community and the traditional software industry is steeped in myth, urban legend, and “conventional wisdom” that everyone assumes to be true. There have been hundreds of essays looking to debunk some of the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt/Doom) put out by the anti-OSS crowd, but far less debunking the mythology surrounding the pro-OSS side. (OK, Microsoft has released a lot of anti-OSS propaganda, but that doesn’t count.)

Neil Gunton has released a fairly well-thought-out look at 7 common Open Source myths. Some good nuggets:

<blockquote>“I think it’s true to say that while many Open Source projects are superior to their close-source counterparts (Apache being a prime example), it’s also true to say that a closed-source approach to a problem can have some benefits. Some of these benefits include having a more focused direction for the team, given the fact that there is (usually) just one manager and team leader, firmer schedules and deadlines, tighter management, profit incentives, salaries and bonus motivations. While this can also be true for open source projects, the “design by committee” that goes on with community projects often results in a more bloated and less focused product that tries to be all things to all people. Also, sometimes a simple lack of funds on the part of the developer can hamper the development.”</blockquote>

I couldn’t agree more… there are certain types of projects that lend themselves very well to Open Source development… for example, web browsers and web servers seem to do very well in that space. However, more corporate-oriented solutions are seldom as good in the OSS world as they are from traditional software vendors. A quick look at the CRM or ERP spaces will show you what I mean. Also, OpenOffice.org, although good enough for many users, is NOT an equal to Microsoft Office… it’s not even close. Remember the old “Windows 95 = Macintosh 84” jokes? Well, OpenOffice.org 2004 = Office 95.

However, I think Gunton’s essay is at its best when he talks about things from the viewpoint of a small developer…

<blockquote>One of the central tenets of the Open Source philosophy (as it seems to be understood by the average person, at any rate) is that all software should be free. This seems a little unrealistic to me, for one glaringly simple reason: Development takes time and effort, and the rest of the world that we all live in is most certainly NOT free. We have to pay for everything else - a place to live, food, clothing, services, you name it. Even artists have a socially-accepted way to make money, and art is possibly one of the closest things to programming. So I fail to see the reasoning behind the suggestion that I should be expected to provide the fruits of my labor to the world for no financial reward…“

“…I know that I, for one, having over 20 years experience writing software, find myself in the odd position of realizing that if I write something independently, then there is basically not a chance in hell of being able to sell it or make money directly from it. Sure, I can sell “support”, but to be honest the idea of answering phones and emails all day really isn’t my idea of a fun time. I grew up in the 1980’s assuming that I would one day be able to write some really cool software, then *SELL IT
, and make some real money for my trouble. But if I were to do that today, then in all likelihood someone would write an Open Source version of the thing, which sort of takes the wind out of any commercial startup.”*</blockquote>

Excellent points. When Microsoft puts a small company out of business by comoditizing their product, they are called evil (although Apple seems largely immune when doing the same thing.) However, Open Source projects frequently commoditize the work of small independant developers. It eliminates markets for the little guy a lot more frequently than it hurts big companies.

Just something to think about.