There's No FUD Like an Old FUD

The Economisthas been writing poorly-informed articles about open source for years – I dissected a particularly egregious example back in 2006. So it's hard to tell whether the flaws in this new book review are down to that antipathy, or whether they are inherent in the title it discusses, "The Comingled Code". As far as the latter is concerned, the following information does not inspire confidence:

its academic tone makes it unlikely that the book will fly off the shelves, even in areas with a lot of hackers (who are sure to take offence at the fact that the authors took money for research from Microsoft, long the arch- enemy of the open-source movement— although they assure readers that the funds came with no strings attached).

Since I've not read the book – and I'd rather not shell out £25.95 for the dubious pleasure of discovering where the errors originate – I'll limit myself to addressing the arguments outlined in the Economist review rather than worrying about where they originated.

First, we have this:

Open-source developers, for instance, are widely believed mostly to be volunteers who just love writing code. While this may have been true in the early days of computing, the motivation and background of programmers is now much more mixed. Many work for firms that develop both open-source and proprietary programs and combine them in all kinds of business models. Nearly 40% of companies surveyed fall into this category.

Well, no, actually: this has been clear for years. Anyone who still believes that this stuff is being written in bedrooms has clearly not been paying attention.

This also comes across as pretty meh-worthy:

The survey also indicates that the two software worlds are much more "comingled" than their respective champions would have it. More than a quarter of companies happily mix and match both sorts, in particular in poorer countries.

So you mean people don't rip out every piece of proprietary software in their business to replace it with entirely open source, but tend to use combinations of both? Well, whodathunk? Actually, more seriously, I think that figure of "more than a quarter" seriously underestimates the practice, which I imagine is much closer to 100% these days. If this is a self-reported figure it's probably more an indication that many CTOs don't actually know what's going on in their IT departments (which has been true for very many years where open source is concerned.)

But my main concern here is with the follow section:

Yet the finding that open-source advocates will like least is that free programs are not always cheaper. To be sure, the upfront cost of proprietary software is higher (although open-source programs are not always free). But companies that use such programs spend more on such things as learning to use them and making them work with other software.

Yes, it's a variant on that old FUD that free software is not actually free (gosh, really?) that Microsoft tried about ten years ago and gave up when it realised that nobody said it was when you took into account all the factors like paying wages. But leaving aside that this, too, is hardly news to anyone, let's just look at the central claim of the current incarnation of that FUD:

companies that use such programs spend more on such things as learning to use them and making them work with other software

So does the first part mean that learning to use a new piece of open source software is inherently harder than learning to use a new piece of proprietary software? I've not seen a single piece of research that suggests that. What I have seen documented is that people who are currently using Microsoft Office, say, find it harder to learn to use OpenOffice, say, than to continue using Microsoft Office. Which is, of course, a piece of wisdom that is once again firmly located at the very heart of the Land of the Bleedin' Obvious.

So, passing swiftly on in the hope that there might be a more substantive issue here, we have the second claim: that companies spend more on making open source work with "other software". But wait, what could that "other software" refer to? Since it's not open source (because it's "other", not open source) it is clearly proprietary; so the problem comes down to making open source work with proprietary software. And why might that be?

Well, it could be because closed software is, by definition, closed, with manufacturers that are generally unhelpful when it comes to providing information that might help others to work with their products (because they want to keep their super-duper "secrets", er, secret). In other words, the problem lies not with open source but with the closed source software, which makes it unnecessarily hard to bring in applications from other vendors (whether using open source or not).

Indeed, it is this problem – the difficulty of using other, possibly open software with proprietary applications – that is one of the key reasons why companies want to move to open source, to avoid this kind of lock-in by breaking the vicious circle. But to say that open source is more expensive because of the problems caused by the proprietary software it is trying to replace is rich indeed. The correct statement would be that proprietary software has hidden costs that manifest themselves when companies try to use new software, for example open source. In other words, it's the other way around.

To be fair, the Economist article does mention the solution to this problem:

governments should make sure that the two forms of software compete on a level playing field and can comingle efficiently. One way of doing this would be to promote open standards to ensure that proprietary incumbents do not abuse a dominant position.

What it – or the book – fails to note is that this is precisely what proprietary software companies have been fighting desperately to prevent. The battle over the definition of open standards in the European Interoperability Framework 2.0 is only the most recent example.

In other words, once again it is the closed-source incumbents that are the problem here, trying to tilt the playing-field in their favour, and to ensure that there are still costs associated with making open source work with their closed source offerings by insisting on licensing fees or other conditions (so how can that be called an "open" standard?)

These difficulties should be seen as another compelling reason for preferring open source and true open standards that permit the use of the main free software licence, the GNU GPL. This would ensure suppliers do indeed compete on a level playing-field, not one skewed by lock-in to proprietary, patented approaches. Open source solutions force proprietary vendors to cut their margins to the bone if they want to compete on these completely fair terms, and the customers benefit from this Darwinian selection process.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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