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*POINT - COUNTERPOINT SPECIAL* What's Wrong with the Open Source Community?

James Turner leads off on the "too many itches" syndrome and other problems - Steve Suehring offers his Counterpoint


1. Too much competition

The first argument made is that too many Open Source developers are "scratching the same itch" with the end result being too much competition. The economist in me is attempting to find a reason why competition would be bad, and James does admit that a little competition can be good. The opposite of competition is monopoly. As we've seen, monopoly in the software business means little or no innovation, virtually no method to make the software secure, price gouging, and much lower quality software.

Given these two alternatives, I'd much rather have more choice.

Is there a happy medium? James calls for there to be two or three Linux distributions instead of the numerous flavors available today. I believe the market should and will play the deciding role here. The market will determine the best flavors of Linux available and those will be the most widely supported among vendors. I see no reason to stifle innovation and competition with the goal of less choice. If someone wants to build their own distribution of Linux then so be it. That is the power of Open Source. You are free to do with it as you please.

Those supporters and developers of other distributions can continue along their path and make their distro better or merge the best aspects of theirs with another. Thus the consumer gets the best-of-breed operating system. The same goes for Open Source software. I would much rather have a choice in Web servers or DNS servers to deploy than be left with one or maybe two choices.

It is this competition that is one of the strongest aspects of Open Source and it is the most widely misunderstood. I'm constantly surprised to hear seemingly smart people compare Open Source development to some form of communism. In fact, Open Source is the free market system at work. The consumer has a choice among distributions and software and is free to do with it as they please.


2. Love a good feud

Unfortunately in his article, James believes that we don't see more consolidation because Open Source people love to fight.

There certainly are strong views among developers of competing software in the Open Source community. Again, I tend to lean towards allowing developers to compete against each other because I believe that in the end the consumer wins. The strongest points of each other's software will be adopted amongst the competing software.

I don't think the goal of having one operating system or one Web server is best for the market. At the same time, I sincerely doubt that Open Source developers work on competing products because they like to fight. I think the feuds are a side-effect of a healthy market economy at work.

There are precious few commodities where a monopoly is good - and software is not one of them.


3. Scratch the wrong itch

James's next contention is that Open Source developers often "scratch the wrong itch". I see this point as somewhat valid but I see it being much more applicable to closed source software than to Open Source. With closed source software you get what you get. If a feature isn't in the software, too bad. Wait for the next release and maybe they'll put it in. You are at the mercy of the software vendor that you locked yourself into.

An example of the problem of scratching the wrong itch in closed source is pop-up blocking. Everyone's familiar with those annoying pop-up ads that appear when you surf to various Web sites. For years, the open source Mozilla browser has been able to block pop-up ads effectively without disabling all of the other features of Javascipt. Where has this functionality been in Internet Explorer? Microsoft is finally getting around to adding this feature in a forthcoming release of IE, years behind.

As an example in his article, James uses the argument that an Open Source developer might require a user to create an XML configuration file to make a piece of software work, as opposed to the "ordinary user" requirement - which might be for dialog boxes instead of manual configuration. Aside from the fact that there is an assumption of a graphical user interface which many Linux users don't use, there's an inherent problem with the argument. Having worked with numerous closed source software companies, I can say that the issue isn't limited to Open Source software. I've worked with closed source software where I had to edit a registry setting or manually change a configuration file in order to make the software work (don't forget to reboot the entire server if you make a registry change.)

The difference is that with the closed source software, I had to pay an extra 20% surcharge in order to receive that support to tell me to change the configuration file. All major Open Source software is documented. Further, the chances of finding an answer quickly using Google are much greater for Open Source than for proprietary software.

At the end of the day, consumers also have the source code, the one and ultimate resource for determining how a piece of software works and changing that software to suit their needs. If you're not a programmer, then you can request functionality to be included - which is the same process you'd have to follow if it was closed source proprietary software as well.


4. With us or against us

James' article goes on to state that there is a feeling of defensiveness in the Open Source community. That when you try to take a critical look at Open Source, you are met with harsh responses. To this point I have no counterpoint except to say that it's certainly not limited to Open Source.

When I wrote a piece last summer for LinuxWorld.com addressing the fact that Microsoft didn't include an adequate firewall in their operating systems it was met with numerous personal attacks, including many sent direct into my inbox. I heard some of the same things that James did, though from a different camp.

Simply because closed-source folks do it doesn't make it excusable for the Open Source community. Neither side in the debate between Open and closed source is without reproach in this regard. I find no valid excuse for the behavior and feel that both sides should be less concerned with killing the messenger. Of course, I have a vested interest in saying that, since many times I am the messenger.


5. Chip on its shoulder

James' piece wraps up with an argument that we Open Source people have a chip on our shoulder about Microsoft or, more appropriately from the examples, about people who use Microsoft products. I've seen evidence of this and I agree with James that it is one of the problems with the Open Source community.

I believe that Open Source software solves countless problems better than its closed source counterpart. However, as I state in forthcoming article in LinuxWorld Magazine, Open Source can win the technology battle but lose the adoption war. The technology can be better, but if we alienate the people who are just starting to use the software, we'll find that the superior technology will be usurped and we'll end up in a niche and not in the business and technology mainstream.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

More Stories By Steve Suehring

Steve Suehring is a technology architect and engineer with a solid background in many areas of computing encompassing both open and closed source systems, he has worked with a variety of companies from small to large, including new and old economy, to help them integrate systems and provide the best use of available technologies. He has also taken a hands-on approach with many projects and frequently leads teams of engineers and developers, and has written magazine articles as well as a book on the MySQL database server. He has also performed technical editing on a number of other titles.

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