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The Limits of Open Source - Introduction

I consider myself to be an open source supporter. Seven of nine bootable machines I own, run open source operating systems, and use only open source software. My two Windows NT machines, include open source products, on which I depend. The Windows machines are my primary workstation and an NT server that recently self-destructed. The NT server, which boots but can't do anything useful, was a public web server for more than a year. Following this latest failure, I decided the effort to rebuild the NT server was not worth the benefits, and will rebuild the machine, using an as yet to be determined open source operating system. Much of what I've written on my web site is about open source. I make a case that governments and schools should move to all open source environments.

General Principles

Some participants in the open source movement, seem to believe, that open source principles are applicable to all software development. This is wrong. Certain types of software development will always be proprietary and secretive, because they are essential parts of business processes that are inherently proprietary and secretive in a competitive economy. Primarily, these are fully custom software developed in-house or under a contract where the client and not the developer has rights to the software. If history is any guide, fundamentally new and original software, which is the sole creation of an individual or single company, will be exploited commercially using the proprietary model.

If the open source movement wants business to adopt open source products widely, as replacements for current proprietary products, it needs to show that open source products are more cost effective than proprietary products. The case will have to be made for each specific product and product area where the advocates hope to see adoption. Open source advocates need to show that partial adoption of open source does not conflict with traditional concepts of intellectual property. Open source will not attract business support by either attacking intellectual property as a moral issue or generalized claims that the open source development model consistently creates better software than proprietary models.

If open source advocates want consumers to use open source, then open source platforms must become as easy to use as proprietary software and provide comparable levels of hardware support and application selection at a lower cost; this seems to be years away.

The widespread use of Perl in an otherwise proprietary environment, the use of Apache instead of IIS on Windows servers, or the use of DNS or DHCP servers on open source operating systems in an otherwise proprietary environment, may be useful first steps towards the more widespread use of open source, but they do not constitute victory. Until most businesses recognize that open source systems can play a significant or even dominant role in providing infrastructure solutions and start using them, it will be difficult to for open source to claim a victory over proprietary solutions.

On the other hand, 100% adoption is not necessary to claim victory and should not be the goal. What is necessary to claim victory, is sufficiently widespread adoption of open source products, primarily but not exclusively in infrastructure uses, so that no single proprietary company can dominate major segments of the computer market. I include business desktop productivity applications as infrastructure, as well as more obvious infrastructure, such as operating systems, databases, directories, and a wide variety of servers.

The goal of the open source movement should be to make better software, not to overturn traditional notions of intellectual property. Copyleft is based on copyright even though copyleft inverts the traditional uses of copyright. Every author of creative works, whether that work is a computer program or more traditional novel, song, or painting or whether the author is an individual, a group, or a corporation, has a right to decide how that work will or will not be distributed. This is a right that is clearly defined in the first Article of the more than 200 year old U.S. Constitution and formally recognized (if not always honored) by virtually every country in the world. If open source is seen as an enemy of intellectual property, as Microsoft is actively portraying it, it will not gain widespread acceptance. Millions of persons still dream of becoming rich and famous as authors, song writers, artists and yes, even programmers. These dreams are based on traditional notions of intellectual property, which are almost universally accepted.

No one in the open source movement should dictate to individual authors (programmers or companies) that the GPL should be preferred over BSD style licenses or vice versa. Likewise no one in the open source movement should dictate to authors who choose not to participate in open source, that they have an obligation to participate rather than distribute their creations under a traditional proprietary model or as shareware or via any other license approach that seems appropriate to the author.

At the same time, consumers and companies have no obligation or even reason to support any licensing model that does not provide them the best value. For example, there is no reason that someone who created a completely new scripting language shouldn't release it using the proprietary licensing model, except they are guaranteed to fail and lose any money they invest in the project. Today Perl and Python dominate the general purpose scripting market because of their high quality, exceptional versatility, availability on nearly all platforms, and exceptional value. IBM released the powerful scripting language, Rexx, in 1979, eight years before Perl appeared. It was however, released as a proprietary language and was included with some IBM OSs such as O/S2. How many readers have ever even heard of Rexx or used it?

The strength of the open source movement is that it has already shown that traditional proprietary software development models have consistently provided low quality, high cost software, in some very important software areas, most notably server operating systems for commodity hardware computers. Other areas where open source has done very well providing higher quality and far higher cost benefit ratios than proprietary solutions are development languages, various servers, and utilities. In a growing number of desktop applications, open source products are or are quickly becoming competitive with their commercial counterparts.

Excuse me if I missed your favorite open source application. I deliberately limited those listed, to established categories where the persons making comparisons, even if their background is primarily in proprietary software, might select an open source solution. Even though by most technical measures, Linux is superior to all Windows versions, Windows continues to dominate most markets and especially desktops. Microsoft monopoly accounts for some but not all of this. Open source advocates have to understand why, even without monopoly conditions, the technically superior product frequently loses the market race.

As long as the open source movement can continue to provide high quality products with significantly better cost benefit ratios than proprietary counterparts, open source acceptance should grow. This growth must not be confused with universal applicability. Below I use four examples starting with one, jet engine control software, that will never be open source. I discuss two areas, government and schools where open source should be widely adopted, beginning immediately. I also discuss a model under which open source could become widely used for medical practice management software. The obstacles to open source adoption by the medical industry are typical of the obstacles open source faces in penetrating most vertical markets.

Only time and hindsight will tell us clearly what the real limits on open source software are. I start with an example that is well known to me and hopefully so obvious that nearly every reader will understand why General Electric will not open source their jet engine control software.

If one accepts that any area of software development is not appropriate to the open source model, there must exist some dividing line between where open source is appropriate and where it is not appropriate. If open source advocates understand what makes the open source development model appropriate for some software and not others, then they will make better arguments for using and or adopting open source development where it is appropriate. If businesses understand these distinctions, they are more likely to adopt open source where it is appropriate.

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