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Re: The GNU Philosophy: How practical is it?

From: Alexander Terekhov
Subject: Re: The GNU Philosophy: How practical is it?
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2007 16:20:38 +0200

Here's a not entirely bad piece as of 2004.

Has Open Source Reached Its Limits?
by Tony Healy on 04.03.2004

Is it possible that, despite all the hype, open source is not
necessarily the best way to develop software? That it's not about to
take over the software industry, and that it's no more a threat to
Microsoft than were Netscape, the Macintosh or Word Perfect? 

Several important distinctions are slowly starting to become obvious in
software. The most important is the distinction between simply writing a
program, which any computer science student can do, and creating a
software product for the mass market, which requires much more
expertise, time and work. 

The mass market now numbers around 600 million computer users, and it
demands that programs be easy to install, reliable to operate and
useful. Those three criteria are deceptively simple, and generally not
understood by the growing number of non-software people advocating for
open source software. 

The site access records of search engine site Google provide a useful
marker into this debate. According to those records, Linux has only
around 1 percent of the mass market [1]. This poses some serious
questions for open source advocates, particularly their demands for
preference in government purchasing. If people don't want open source,
why should they be forced to use it? 

This is not to say that there are not valid uses for Linux and the
release of source code. Linux increasingly fills a useful role in
specialized computing environments such as those associated with
academic and technical research; and sharing of research findings,
including source code, is standard practice in academic and scientific

The issue that needs to be addressed is whether those other environments
translate to the mass market for software. In this paper, I argue that
they don't, and that the composition of various open source advocacy
groups masks fundamental weaknesses of open source. I also argue that,
contrary to claims by political advocates, open source is the worst
choice for nations seeking to build their local software industries. 

Examples don't support claims 

Many of the success stories of open source aren't relevant to what seems
to be the main thrust of open source advocacy--the capturing of the mass
consumer market. This is important, because the mass consumer market is
qualitatively different from other markets. It demands a much higher
level of software engineering in order to provide the requisite ease of
use, robustness and flexibility. 

This point is nicely illustrated in the games market, where innovation
is at a premium, and technology changes rapidly. In that environment,
the open source model, of copying existing code bases from someone else,
fails dismally. The computer game market is dominated by commercially
developed games. [2] 

It is also illustrated by the fact that most of the successful open
source products tend to be for technical users or for running on
servers. This type of software is easier to write because the user can
be relied on to carry out any necessary installation or operating
procedures as instructed, or to understand the need for particular
technical restorative actions. 

Similarly, most of the environments cited as evidence of the merit of
open source development are in academic and scientific computing, which
have different motives and success factors from those for mass-market
software. For academics and scientists, the writing of software is
simply the manifestation of research that will be published separately.
It is the research, not the software, which constitutes their primary
output, and the criterion by which success will be judged. By
comparison, the work of a software developer, whether an individual or a
firm, is to develop and market successful software products. Actions
that undermine competitive standing of software have little impact for
academics, but can cripple software developers. 

Allied to this is the fact that academics' pay comes from teaching
students, or from government or private grants, whereas developers' pay
comes from the software they produce, whether directly or as part of a
software firm. Academics gain nothing from protecting their source code,
whereas commercial developers do. Together, these grounds render
academic and scientific software irrelevant as arguments for the open
source process. 

Third, it's common in open source advocacy to see figures describing the
number of projects at open source site or similar sites,
with the implications this represents a mass of useful products. In
actual fact, most of the projects are of poor quality, are unfinished
and are certainly not comparable with the polished products of the
commercial software development model. 

Fourth, the firms often presented at open source conferences as evidence
of the virtues of releasing source code are usually not software
developers at all, but web developers, and their much vaunted "products"
usually include very little original intellectual property. In other
words, protection of source code is generally not important to web

The new breed of detached observers who are now starting to examine open
source from cultural perspectives has noticed the divergence between
myth and reality in the open source movement. For example, University of
Arizona sociologists Kieran Healy and Alan Schussman found open source
to be an essentially derivative process, rather than an innovative one,
and for claims about collaboration to be exaggerated. [3] 

Agendas of advocacy groups mask weaknesses 

In the same way that many examples of open source activity aren't
relevant to mass market software, so too the agendas of many open source
advocates hide weaknesses in the concept. Most communities pushing for
the release of source code are vested interests who gain from open
source at the expense of software developers, but this is not usually

This raises questions as to whether the software development industry
has a place in the economy and, if so, whether it has a right for its
interests to be acknowledged. I argue that the software industry is
incredibly useful and productive, deserves its place in the economy and
needs the freedom to decide whether to provide source code to customers. 

Communities advocating for open source fall into four main groups - IBM,
hardware makers, commodity firms and some types of lawyers. 

For IBM, open source is a Trojan horse that gives its consulting
business access to lucrative government accounts around the world. The
consulting fees charged by outsourcers for the switch to open source are
often comparable to the license fees that would have been paid to
Microsoft. The inconsistency in IBM’s open source advocacy can be seen
in the tight hold it exercises on the source code for its own profitable
software products, such as the expensive Websphere application server. 

For hardware makers such as Sun, HP, IBM and some makers of embedded
devices, open source is a way to reduce the cost of software and thus
expand the market for computers. While this is a perfectly legitimate
aim for those companies, it is not in the interests of software
developers or of developing countries that might have a chance of
building useful software industries. 

For web firms and some support businesses, open source represents a
reduction in costs. A common mistake in policy analysis is to see those
firms as representing software developers, when they are better seen as
customers of software developers. These firms will naturally advocate
for software to be cheaper, while charging top dollar for their own

For law firms and lawyers, open source represents a rich opportunity to
benefit from the increased complexity of licensing and copyright
agreements. Only lawyers benefit from this. 

Rationales are false 

Several rationales used to promote open source do not stand up to
examination. Those rationales fall into three main areas – that open
source assists countries to develop valuable software industries, that
open source is a better way to develop software, and that it’s better to
use public software rather than Microsoft software. 

Examples of industry development motivations can be seen in Peruvian
Congressman Villanueva Nuñez' famous 2002 letter to Microsoft [4] and in
recommendations of the United Nations Conference on Trade and
Development [5]. 

However, industry development requires strong intellectual rights
protection, according to a United Nations report on developing nations.
This is especially so for producing valuable packaged software. In
India, the lack of such protection prevented well-known IT companies
Wipro and Sonate from producing packaged software for the local market.
[6] Similar findings were made in a paper by Sunil Kanwar and Robert
Evenson, which used cross-country panel data on R&D investment, patent
protection and other country-specific characteristics over the period
1981–95 to conclude that intellectual property rights unambiguously spur
innovation. [7] 

In any case, for developing nations, it seems odd to concentrate on the
costs of software when many other factors are more important. For
example, whereas a computer costs a month's wages for an average
American worker, it costs eight years' wages for a Bangladeshi [8].
Similarly, the University of Namibia had only 15 computers for 2,000
students in 1998. [9] 

Australian politician and open source advocate Ian Gilfillan claims that
open source projects help train local developers, presumably by making
the source code available. [10] But that claim makes no sense. Good
developers create their own designs; they don't need to copy other
peoples' source code. Further, developers already have access to
extensive source code in samples and software development kits if they
wish to see how particular techniques are implemented. 

In terms of arguing that open source is a better way to develop
software, one popular rationale is that open source spares the developer
from having to reinvent the wheel. But all modern software platforms
provide this benefit. Microsoft platforms probably provide it better
than open source, because they expose functionality via precisely
defined hooks that continue to work in upgraded versions of the
platform, allowing properly engineered third party applications to work
seamlessly across all required versions of Windows, including future

A related argument holds that access to the source code allows greater
customization and that this can contribute to innovation. Again,
development of custom functionality and third party applications does
not need access to source code of the underlying platform. There is
extensive development of customized functionality and third party
applications for the Windows platform.

Finally, the arguments that it’s better to use public software rather
than Microsoft software rely on alleged freedom from lock-in, and
avoidance of the alleged dangers of a software monoculture. 

The reality is that open source can trap a customer into an outsourcer
relationship more readily than commercial software. This is because
commercial platforms expose standard API's for third party applications
and any consultant can develop for them. 

For example, respected open source developer Hans Reiser of the ReiserFS
file system has complained that controllers of different versions of
Linux have started threatening to invalidate support contracts if
customers stray from their own versions. He describes this behavior as
being intended to achieve market leverage and exclude competitors. "By
doing this they can exclude mainstream official kernels from being used,
exclude rival file systems, exclude whatever might lead to less customer
lock-in," he writes in Slashdot. [11]

The arguments about a monoculture can apply both ways. Just as having
consistent platforms makes for a bigger target, it also simplifies the
task of securing platforms and issuing updates. Establishing 100 percent
security in software and in large installations of that software is an
enormous task.
Having multiple different products would simply multiply the effort, not
reduce it. 


Pushing the open source concept too far into areas where it's not
applicable will lead to universities and taxpayers shouldering the cost
of software development for business, and doing it less capably than
specialist software development firms. This is a point made by Bertrand
Meyer and Nikolai Bezroukov, who contend that so-called free programming
is often funded by taxpayers in one form or another, and that open
source essentially represents a distortion of the market. [12, 13] 

Already, a few practical realities have emerged from open source
experiments. Munich staff will continue to use many Windows programs,
except they will be running them on emulators on Linux. When Australia's
largest telecommunications company, Telstra, considered open source
desktop products, it exempted 6,000 managers, who would continue to use
Microsoft products. 

As these factors become more apparent, open source will go the way of
other IT industry fads that were once trumpeted as the way of the
future, like Macintosh computers, business AI, 4GL programming languages
and Y2K. Munich, the Australian Capital Territory and other locations
will provide fascinating test beds for the claims of open source
advocates. Indeed, there is already evidence that staffers at Munich are
not as enamored of open source as the political advocates are. [14] 

1. Google Zeitgeist - Search patterns, trends, and surprises according
to Google, Sept. 2003 

2. Solveig Singleton: “FreeCiv” and its Discontents: Policy Lessons from
Open Source Games: A Case Study, CEI, 19 Nov. 2003 

3. Kieran Healy and Alan Schussman: The Ecology of Open Source
Development, University of Arizona, 14 Jan. 2003 (Unpublished) 

4. Reply by Congressman Villanueva Nuñez to Microsoft, Lima, 08 Apr,
2002, translated into English by Graham Seaman 04 Aug. 2002 

5. United Nations E-Commerce and Development Report 2003, Chapter 4,
Free and open-source software: Implications for ICT policy and
development, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2003 

6. Zelkja Kozul-Wright and Jeremy Howells: Changing Dynamics of Computer
Software and Services Industry: Implications for Developing Countries,
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations, New
York and Geneva, 2002 pp 27-29 

7. Sunil Kanwar and Robert Evenson: Does intellectual property
protection spur technological change? Oxford Economic Papers 2003;
55:235-264 (Department of Economics, University of Delhi, and Yale

8. United Nations Development Program: Human Development Program: 1999,
Oxford University Press 

9. W Wresch: Information access in Africa: Problems with every channel,
The Information Society, 14, 1998, pp 295-300 

10. Ian Gilfillan: Open Source Bill Gathers Momentum, Democrats, 25 Jun

11. Hans Reiser Speaks Freely About Free Software Development, Slashdot,
18 Jun 2003 

12. Bertrand Meyer: The Ethics of Free Software, Software Development
Magazine Mar 2000 (Needs free

13. Nikolai Bezroukov: Open Source Software Development as a Special
Type of Academic Research, Oct 1999 

14. Michelle Delio: Munich Open Source Plows Ahead, Wired, 11 Feb 2004,1377,62236,00.html 

Tony Healy is a research software engineer and policy researcher in
Sydney, Australia.

P.S. BTW, re Munich/LiMux as of 2007:
(Munich buys Windows 2000 used licenses)

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