Correspondence on 'The Problems of Open Source'
This correspondence came
from an FOSS supporter. I publicise it because it was
about the only intelligent response I received to 'The
Problems of Open Source' from the FOSS camp and it
reveals no confidential information. I've not included
the email of the sender to respect his privacy. His
comments are italicised and my text is not. Replies to
replies etc. are indented.
I'd like to give some belated feedback on your open
source article. I'll focus on your main points here:
1. Good software arises when one or more very good
programmers work closely full time together over a period
of time developing, maintaining and improving it.
Yes and no. It
doesn't require full-time attention or very good
programers. Just good programmers and enough time to
do it. Depending on the project, it can be done in
spare time as a hobby as well.
The problem is that in a commercial environment,
there is not much incetive to get good programmers to
work together intensively for a long time, because
that costs too much. Rather, they get the cheapest
possible programmer who can just handle the job, and
push that person to do the job as quickly as
possible. In my experience, the quality of the
software I'm writing together with my colleagues at
work is normally lower than the open source software
I work on since most employers don't want to invest
in good software. They are OK with sofware that
"just works" with the emphasis on
"just". There's even a perverse incentive
not to make the software too good if it's sold to a
third party, so they will buy the next version with
much needed improvements.
altogether agree here. It depends on the
software but generally there is a steep
investment of time in grokking any large piece of
software and if you have a good team with
experience it is hard to replace. I've seen
software be degraded by people arriving on a
project with ideas but lack of knowledge.
Hobbyism doesn't really provide the degree
of financial support necessary to underwrite
professionally produced, documented and finished
2. If you give your
software away under GPL (free as in free speech) its very
difficult to charge for it and so it ends up being free
as in free beer. Ditto for FOSS.
Yes and no.
Usually the software itself is free. Usually, there
is some indirect way to make money for it involved.
Often that is sufficient.
This is the nub of
the article; often it is not. The point is
that most OS people start with saying 'OS is
great' and then hunt around for some economic
model to sustain it. Funding should not be
3. Hence if you want to
maintain yourself and/or your team, you need a viable
economic model and FOSS/GPL does not always supply it.
Their standard models are support and advertising.
No. There are
other models as well, such as corporate cooperation.
The reason Linux has taken of as the Unix operating
system of our times is that many corporations wanted
a Unix, but before you had tons of incompatible
Unix-alikes from different vendors, like HP-UX, AIX,
Xenix, etc. It makes more sense, even for those
commercial entities to invest in a jont venture like
Linux than to pump money in competing non-compatible
systems. In other words, standardisation cuts costs
enough for it to be attractive to invest in. Open
source guarantees standardization much better than
commercial software, hence investing in open source
software is attactive for certain problem domains.
Other models for generating income from open source
not mentioned by you are ransomware , freemium, and
other ideas yet to be discovered.
I think Linux was
covered and I pointed out it was a special case
of something complex enough to make money through
services. But this does not suit many
development projects. Ransomware is thought of as
malware. Freemium doesn't really work well
4. Since the economic
model for FOSS is not generically viable it often relies
on corporate and taxpayer money to sustain itself.
False, but even if
it were true, why would this be bad?
Well I think if OS
software mostly cannot internally generate
revenue; if it is dependent on the public purse
or takeovers of abandoned software then really
this needs to be flagged by OS people. What
they are saying is 'Our model is by itself
incapable of financially sustaining development
w.o. external funding or giftware'. That is
a major weakness and needs to be flagged.
corporations do decide on what projects to invest
money in and which ones not, and they invest in open
source software because it's profitable for them in
the long run. It doesn't take much thought to figure
out why. For many domains, it's much cheaper to
finance a few enthusiasts and get a server OS or a
speadheet package out of it than to fork over endless
big license money to commercial entities who want to
keep you in the upgrade treadmill. This also explains
though why there is not much progress for, say, Linux
on the desktop, since that's not a domain that the
powers that be find very interesting to invest in.
Compare this to how Android has exploded in
popularity with millions of activations per day...
"Who profits" indeed! :)
This is a fair
point; but it comes under the 'too complex to use
easily' provision which I mentioned in the essay.
Sure if your software is hard to fathom or use
then there may be a percentage in being paid to
maintain or develop it. This case was covered in
However note that
the OS developer's position is precarious. If the
corporation decides to make the software in-house
or decides that they understand it well enough or
that it is stable enough not to need maintenance
then the OS developer is likely to be dropped in
the next round of corporate spending cuts.
BSD/MIT licenses give you very few rights over
5. The lousy quality of
FOSS is disguised by pointing to the few success stories.
So much of it is (badly) copying commercial ideas.
False. I'd say not
only FOSS, but MOST of ALL software is of a lousy
quality, and FOSS often tends to be somewhat better
where it matters, though, admittedly, not always.
This is of course due to lack of resources in both
cases, but for different reasons. As for copying
ideas it happens in all ways. I know just as many
instances of commercial software copying open source
as vice versa!
I think there are
specific reasons why FOSS is often worse, because
there is often no financial incentive for people
to maintain and improve it. Any commercial
software at least begins with this incentive.
However the 'if you don't like it too bad'
attitude is symptomatic of a lot of FOSS work.
I'm not being paid so why bother?
Also the atrocious quality of the doc
because OS hackers do not like writing up their
work because it's not 'fun'.
6. Corporations like FOSS
because it allows them to exploit ideas without
Yes, and no.
Corporations are smart enough to know that FOSS
enthusiasts need to eat too, and often will hire them
or fund them.At least in cases where it makes sense
economically to said corporations.
To the minimum
degree to get what they want which may be zero if
they can get away with it. Or they may
prefer to make the project inhouse and hire their
own having grabbed stuff for free. Who says
they have to be nice or fair?
7. We do not need the Open
Source Movement or the FSF.
False. While I do
think that the FSF is a bit extreme, I think they
embody a positive spirit of giving that ultimately is
better for mankind than the short-sighted model of
maximum profit at the expense of anything else. While
economy is important, the current systems we have are
not the end all be all. The problem is that the state
of the economic science is dismal, often it is not
better than a religion where everything is taken on
faith and facts are ignored (see, for example, the
Austrians). Now why would that be so?
Well that begs the
question as to whether OS is a good thing. I've
argued it may not be. The message of the FSF is
that closed source is evil. The OS site
simply refuses to engage in any discussion on the
weaknesses of their model. This is not to
say giving is wrong, but that it is an individual
choice and not a matter for organisations to
promote - particularly if they are pushing
something that is flawed or which they cannot