The Myth of Open Source Support Tactics

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Apr. 18, 2003 04:48 PM

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I attended the hearing for Oregon HB 2892. There are good arguments on both sides. I'd really like to see the state use Open Source software everywhere it makes sense (and it makes sense in many, many places). However, one clause in the original bill required written justification for choosing a proprietary package. This adds too much work to the procurement process. The revised bill wisely removes this requirement.

Of course, several proprietary software companies and related organizations oppose the bill, for obvious reasons. Aside from legitimate concerns about written justification, their testimony was predictable. Some believe that asking the state to consider open software is an attempt to destroy the software industry. Others claimed that the cost of supporting open source software and retraining people to use it far surpassed the cost savings of not paying licensing fees.

(One fellow claimed, astonishingly, that proprietary software's big advantage is that you can buy it outright and use it forever, whereas you could never own open source software. I wanted to ask him for a single example.)

A far more insidious claim is that, though companies like Red Hat and IBM provide support for open source software, they have economic compulsions to distribute lousy software. "Obviously", the argument goes, "good software needs no support." If you're charging for support, why bother making good software?

I've never understood this argument. Driving back from Salem, I realized why. It misunderstands the fundamental realities of open source software.

Take a hypothetical GNU/Linux vendor called Mauve Pants. According to this argument, Mauve Pants could be distributing buggy and unusuable software, charging lots of money to file bugs and explain workarounds, never intending to fix the bugs, improve the documentation, or improve the interface.

In other words, Mauve Pants intends to get rich by writing terrible software.

That argument conveniently ignores several important points:

  • Mauve Pants is not the sole vendor of this software. Anyone can distribute or sell open source software.
  • Mauve Pants is not the sole source of support. Anyone can provide support for open source software. A competing company called Taupe Pants wouldn't have to rely on years of experience as end-users to know the software. They have access to the source code itself.
  • Mauve Pants is probably not the sole developer of this software. Mauve Pants probably didn't even start the project. Anyone can fix the bugs in the software and feed the changes back to the original developer -- or clone or fork the project.
  • Mauve Pants is not in control of the data formats used by the software. Anyone can write a compatible program.

In other words, because there's no vendor lock-in with open source software, the argument is entirely without merit. Mauve Pants has to compete in a free market on their services and support. If they do a poor job, there's room for Taupe Pants to do it better.

A proprietary software company has more opportunities for evil. They can lock customers in with proprietary data formats. They can write terrible software and drive the competition out of business with exclusivity agreements and product bundling. They can charge tremendous amounts for support contracts.

Perhaps the BSA should consider its own ranks before spreading myths about open source software.

chromatic manages Onyx Neon Press, an independent publisher.