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Sunday, July 31, 2005
  big impact- Open-source vs proprietary

Proprietary software is licensed, not sold, with severe accompanying restrictions on copying or modification.

This scheme was not devised by fools. It reduces piracy, rewards risk, and allows vendors to enforce compatibility. And when a proprietary vendor controls industry standards, it generates fantastic amounts of money; Microsoft alone has created about 10,000 millionaires through employee stock options.

And yet there are now literally thousands of open-source development efforts like OpenOffice, Firefox, Linux and Apache that have been downloaded tens of millions of times. Why?

Closed concept

Proprietary products cannot be customised by users. Product quality is uneven, in part because outsiders cannot examine source code.

If a vendor controls major industry standards, as Microsoft does, it can force customers to upgrade – change to a newer version, and pay more money – almost at will.

Furthermore, because lock-in to a proprietary standard is so profitable, imitation is a major threat. Software vendors therefore spend large amount of money pursuing patents to deter clones and lawsuits by rivals.

Perhaps, most importantly, proprietary vendors also threat plans, source code, and technology as secrets that must be carefully guarded.

But in software development as in other activities, secrecy allows mistakes and abuses to be covered up. Bad work goes uncorrected; managers hide information to gain career advantage. To ferret bad work, company hire testing and quality-assurance groups that are kept separate from development groups, but this is wasteful.

And if a software vendor has financial problems or an executive loses and internal political battle, a product can languish for years. If customers have problems, they tell the vendor and hope that it will listen. Sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s just too bad.

Open-source inverts this model. Under the terms of the most common open-source licensing agreement, the GNU General Public License (GPL), a program’s source code must be made available whenever the program is distributed.

Others programmers may do what they want with it, on same condition; any modifications they make must also be covered by the GPL – that is their code must be made available.

The GPL in combination with the meritocratic culture of software technologists, has yielded a highly transparent, decentralised approach to software development controlled by communities of engineers who determine the direction their efforts should take. Open-source development groups generally post all the their work publicly, including specifications, source code, bug reports, bug fixes, future plans, proposals for enhancement, and their often-vitriolic debates.

Linux is open-source in this sense (and yes, Microsoft monitors it closely).

All killer, no filler.

Relative to proprietary efforts, in open-source development – there is little management hierarchy, strategic gameplaying, patenting, and branding, and few flashy product launch events – in short less rubbish.

Even though the total workforce is large – as many as 10,000 people – most of it is technical. Red Hat still has fewer than a thousand employees, though it is growing fast. By contrast, Microsoft has 57,000 employees. Microsoft’s legal department alone probably costs more money than the governance structure of the entire open-source movement.
And there is no question that for many engineers, the comparative absence of rubbish is one of the major attractions of working on open-source projects – either as volunteers or as paid employees.

“We have people lining up to work for us,” Red Hat’s Tiemann said “There are so many people interested in working on open-source that we can be very selective.”

Furthermore, much Microsoft’s technical workforce must work on quality assurance and bug fixing, which in open source efforts often come for free from “the community”. Given its lower growth rate, Microsoft thus finds itself a victim of the forces that it once exploited; its average costs are fixed and high, while those Linux are low and declining.

Not so rosy

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