Tuesday, September 19, 2006

There is no Open Source Community - the Original Article

So a while back, I had an epiphany that allowed me to answer the question, "Why do open source companies exist?" and "How do they stay in business with a freely available core product?" The answer I came up with is that companies released software because they had to - that the internet had some interesting effects on the software market as a whole, resulting in depressed software prices, thus creating an environment conducive to an open source ecosystem. The folks at onlamp.com were kind enough to post it, and it stimulated some interesting arguments on Slashdot and various blogs on the net. I think I was mostly right in that article, but there are a couple of conclusions I reached about which I have some doubts. You'll see some of that expressed in the post after this.

In any case, I have enough thoughts on the subject, that I've decided to make this a blog on its own right, and leave my personal stuff on my main blog.


Rufus Polson said...

Just read the original article.
A bit overstated for effect in places, obviously, but I'm not going to belabour those. Clearly you're not trying to claim that, say, Richard Stallman had no impact. You're claiming that the internet and the distribution and copying capabilities it enabled had a huge impact on how things are done and what kinds of project are capable of widespread influence. Fair enough.

One thing I do wonder about, though, is the claim that open source software in a particular field is enabled precisely by prices nearing zero in that field. This seems odd. It seems clear to me that in many fields, open source software is or became available and influential even though prices for such software were high. Take webserver software--Apache dominates the field, yet Microsoft continues to sell software for the same purpose with inferior capabilities for a fair amount of money. Certainly there was plenty of webserving software being sold for big bucks when Apache first began to have an impact. Similar things are true for database software, where Oracle of course rules the roost just now and charges arms and legs, while packages like PostGreSQL duplicate most of its functionality. And open source database software is not new. Back in the day, the same would have been true of compiler software; I would suspect that nowadays one doesn't often see a lot of money charged for compilers precisely *because* of the spread of GCC.

I work in a university library, and let me tell you that libraries pay some serious dollars for our software. We're talking massive purchasing decision that we can't afford to do more than once every five to ten years, just little tweaks and modules added to the main package costing in the tens of thousands of dollars. NOT a commodity. Definitely a niche market. Very expensive. Piracy not an issue. It so happens that there are currently two different open source library software packages in use in several academic libraries and gathering momentum.

There's tons of open source software in niche scientific applications.

I don't think there's any necessary relationship between prices and open source. Sometimes open source is driven by commoditization no doubt. On the other hand, sometimes it is driven by the opposite, and creates the commoditization. And sometimes it's just that someone says "Wouldn't it be cool if there was an open one of these, that did what I wanted it to instead of what the vendor is willing to do?"

The internet enables things to happen, yes. It creates an environment where a locally-controlled, centralized infrastructure is not necessary for groups to create software (among other things). But the factors that cause people to take advantage of that are, I think, a tad bit more complex than your thesis suggests. The urge to explain is the urge to simplify, to abstract out factors that don't matter and try to uncover the key drivers of activity. But it's not always do-able. The world is complicated. I think this bit of explanation was an overstep that misses a lot of what's happening.

Rufus Polson said...

Oh, yes, nearly forgot--in at least one case, open source started an entirely new and, as it turns out, fairly important, software category that had not existed before: the Beowulf cluster. This sort of clustering now drives many supercomputers.
That was hardly commoditized at the time. If some closed-source software firm had introduced the idea, they would surely have been in a position to charge significantly for their product.