What if open source is bad?

Bossier City, LA

#1 Dec 27, 2009
I've often wondered, what's the real motivation behind open source? Sure, the reported and defended purpose of open source is to make our lives (i.e., the software developers' lives) easier by making source code to our products available to our end users. This is supposed to improve our product by involving our customers in the development of the product itself. Of course, that means we can't bill for as much maintenance unless we call it "support" instead, but we'd rather be working on new projects anyway. Our end users, in the same respect, can obtain the source code, build and use the product, and obtain their support through Google or another third party and completely cut us out of the financial loop despite our contributions. Although I hate to get political, and I already expect to be attacked by a groupthink party line reply, I must express a concern that has been troubling me for some time as an open source developer.

Has anyone noticed that most software is either the commercially developed and non-open industry leader, or an open source alternative? There seems to be no commercially viable competition anywhere in between. In a tangible goods market, it would be like having only one brand of bottled water that people pay for and the "free alternative" of the public water fountains. Does the lack of competition create the demand for open source alternatives, or does the open source alternative prevent consideration for a viable competitor? Why would anyone invest in developing a product to compete with Adobe Illustrator when we have Inkscape? Why try to compete with Microsoft Office sales when you can just contribute to Open Office? And of course, what investor in their right mind would fund an alternative operating system when there is already a free alternative to Windows, right?

Could it be that "open source alternatives" are nothing more than shadow-software developed to keep potentially profitable competition out of the market, thus solidifying the position of the current market leader? Is open source really just vaporware 2.0? Does the open source initiative help big business and hurt small developers who seek to compete with big business?

Even if it is not the “hidden agenda of the FSF” or anything like that, the end results of open source are still the same. Whether or not there is an ulterior motive, the open source movement has failed to create significant commercially viable alternatives to commercial software. And, before someone starts holding up Firefox as a counter-example of viable alternatives, I would like to point out that web browsers are not generally purchased and are thus not in the same category as most commercial software like Maya, Excel, or Visio and have no simple metric for commercial viability. And before fingers point to Red Hat, I shall again say the word “significant” and point to the chart here:


We face some hard questions that should be seriously considered by every software developer. If our intent is to compete, we should create products and sell them, create services and lease them, and re-invest our profits into improving our products and services. If our intent is to help the leading competitor in any given niche maintain their hold on the market, by all means we should keep on creating open source alternatives of such high quality that any startup attempt at competition appears ludicrous and unsustainable by comparison.

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