Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Economist and OSS

The Economist had an article on Open Source Software that I found interesting.

To summarize the article: the open-source model will continue to be applied in domains outside of software engineering and is a lucrative business model--albeit one with some outstanding issues. I agree with the former statement, but the latter is poorly reasoned and supported.

...However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality...

With regards to ensuring quality, the underlying assumption is that closed source, for-profit software development does have means of ensuring quality, which should set off a three-alarm fire in the collective brains of software developers everywhere. Closed source products that do not maintain quality are eliminated via natural selection (or some similar process), just as they are in the OSS model. It's pretty simple: release buggy commercial software, and users will start looking for other alternatives. Release buggy OSS, and users will start looking for other alternatives. Same concept applies.

I would add that capitalistic models can be more insidious than their OSS counterparts. In my professional experience, consumers are rarely educated enough to make tangible distinctions between technologically intricate products in terms of quality and performance. Often times marketing and deep pockets help fill this void, and the oft-quoted rule of thumb "if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit" holds strong. Intel's "MHz rules" marketing of the past decade, which openly lead consumers to believe that the clock rate of a CPU was the deciding factor in performance (this is false) is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Because OSS generally lacks marketing and advertising, there is little room for consumer manipulation.

Moving on, the article completely misses the point when it quotes activity numbers:
Projects that fail to cope with open source's vulnerabilities usually fall by the wayside. Indeed, almost all of them meet this end. Of the roughly 130,000 open-source projects on, an online hub for open-source software projects, only a few hundred are active, and fewer still will ever lead to a useful product. The most important thing holding back the open-source model, apparently, is itself.

Let's get one thing straight: almost all products meet an obscure end. There is a reason people don't use cassette decks, LPs, and eight-track formats anymore. People do not continue to drive cars engineered in the 1970s except in countries with restricted markets. I know of no one who currently uses an 18.8k modem to connect to the Internet. People rarely use floppy disks. There are reasons people don't use Windows 3.1 or the original Netscape Navigator. Tube amplifiers were displaced by solid state amplifiers which are currently being displaced by new, efficient digital amplifier designs.

Wristwatches are going the way of the dodo. Why carry a wristwatch if your mobile phone does it for you, in addition to any number of other useful features?

If the pattern isn't obvious, allow me to be blunt: even Rome had her day. It is the natural order of products and ideas to be useful in their inception and fade into obscurity after being displaced by new paradigms. The reason for the lack of activity on is two fold:
  1. Sometimes, a product is simply finished. There isn't a reason to continue development on it anymore. The source code remains for people to use it as is, or incorporate it into new projects.
  2. As was mentioned above, Darwinian selection always applies. The "fittest" march ahead. Just like the vast majority of all species that have ever roamed the earth are extinct, so are many projects on, for reasons that have little to do with the OSS model and everything to do with being fit.
What the Economist is really seeing in the SourceForge statistics is that it is much easier to quantify activity of OSS projects. However, there is no analogous repository of failed start-up companies, botched commercial executions, or stale inventions for capitalistic counterparts, which brings up an interesting point: how can we compare the success rate of OSS to capitalistic software since there is no information regarding birth, death and "success" rates of commercial software? OSS projects have a well-documented death in SourceForge; commercial products die in a shallow grave somewhere in the middle of Nevada, making it almost impossible to draw a meaningful comparison.

The criticisms of the Economist article continue:
What is still missing are ways to “identify and deploy not just manpower, but expertise,” says Beth Noveck of New York University Law School (who is applying open-source practices to scrutinising software-patent applications, with an eye to invalidating dubious ones). In other words, even though open-source is egalitarian at the contributor level it can nevertheless be elitist when it comes to accepting contributions.

This is, again, backwards.

First of all, OSS projects don't "deploy" manpower. People who contribute find a project they're interested in, and they work on it. Often times companies invest in open source software, because it represents a cheaper, better product that they can leverage to cut costs and/or improve their primary products. In any event, the companies and individuals select the projects they want to work on, and not vice-versa.

Second, products that satisfy a consumer/user want--not the existence of expertise--drive the adoption rate of a given technology. Linux was not widely adopted because Linus Torvald has expertise in operating system design. Linux was adopted because it satisfied a real world need. It should also be noted that Linus was inspired by Minix (a kernel and operating system developed by Andrew Tanenbaum) to develop a capable UNIX-like operating system that could be run on a PC. In effect, a real-world user need was the first mover and not the influx of technically savvy professionals.

One issue with classical capitalistic models is that user wants are not as easily expressed. Research, development, and marketing departments spend vast resources trying to determine what it is consumers actually want, which sounds like a simple proposition in theory, but in practice is anything but. OSS skips this step--the consumer is often the user who is often the engineer. Eric Von Hippel has elaborated on this phenomenon substantially, especially in his writings concerning Lead Users.

Finally, the article makes the claim that OSS projects may be unable to maintain their momentum:
Once the early successes are established, it is not clear that the projects can maintain their momentum, says Christian Alhert, the director of, which examines the feasibility of applying open-source practices to commercial ventures.

This is, again, completely backwards. Projects have a momentum that is not driven by people contributing so much as it is driven by people who have a need for the project. A bunch of OSS geeks do not congregate every Sunday to discuss what software they'll jointly produce or what innovation they should attempt in order to penetrate some untapped, currently undefined niche market. User wants drive this innovation, not a traditional capitalistic notion of product momentum.

Finally, there is little benefit to maintaining the momentum of an unpopular OSS project, just as there is little benefit to maintaining the momentum of an unpopular commercial project.

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