The Open Source Movement

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The open source movement has grown to become a significant force in today’s computing environment. In some sectors of the software industry, open source programs have become popular enough to provide real competition to proprietary alternatives; in others, they have emerged as the dominant standard. Linux is becoming increasingly popular as the operating system for servers, gradually eating away at the market share of Windows NT. Apache has long been, and will remain in the foreseeable future, the most popular web server program. And for those developing UNIX-compatible software, the GNU development tools have become almost universally standard.

Although open source software has become quite influential in some sectors, its influence has been rather modest in others. Open source programs, in particular the operating system Linux, have had very little penetration into the largest market for computer software – novice home users who do not necessarily understand computers or programming. Despite the free price tag and increasing availability of features, support, and hardware compatibility, a small percentage of home computer users choose to rely on open source alternatives to proprietary software. Why is this? Most open source advocates are quick to argue that it is due to Microsoft’s monopoly power and predatory business practices, which it uses to make it difficult for other operating systems to gain market share. But it is probably not true that economics alone has kept Linux out of the average home computer.

Open source software has a tendency to be designed for the needs of experienced computer users, who often desire power and efficiency over easy of use and are willing to invest time to overcome a steeper learning curve, traits which are not common among average personal computer users.

This is not surprising, considering that almost all open-source software, by nature, is “designed by hackers for hackers.” In a proprietary software firm, programmers are influenced by marketing considerations, and in many cases must insure that programs are appealing to a large number of novice users if they are going to be sold. Most open source programs are designed by advance computer users for their own use or for use by other advanced users. Thus, most users choose to remain loyal to Microsoft and other proprietary software distributors. Projects like KDE and GNOME have made strides in addressing the ease-of-use differential between Linux and Windows, but clearly much work remains to be done.

The open source paradigm also has had more influence on some types of software than others. While open source operating systems, web servers, and development tools have become very popular, open source office software and games are examples of software categories that have not really taken hold. Is this trend just by chance, or is there something about these types of software that do not fit as well into the open source paradigm? If we look at the motivations of open source contributors, we can see that one reason programmers take up open source programs is for the intellectual challenge of solving new and interesting problems. Another is the desire to create a product to fulfill a need that is not already well met be proprietary software. While it certainly involves a lot of work, creating a spreadsheet or word processing program does not require any groundbreaking ideas. And designing games, while often challenging and groundbreaking, may not be a task suited to a large, unstructured group of people because of its storytelling and stylistic requirements. If someone has a great idea for a game, there is very little to stop him from developing that game and selling it, since no one else is likely to have the same idea at the same time and develop an open source version. It seems reasonable to conclude that some types of programs may tend to fit the proprietary model of development better than the open source model, and that inevitably some companies will always be able to make money by selling software that does not have any free alternatives.

Another interesting question about open source involves the influence of “big business” in the movement’s character and forward progress. Now that several very large companies have begun to make lots of money off of open source software, how will things change? There are two perspectives. First, some believe that business interests will inevitably detract from the original ideals of the open source movement, and that monetary interests will be placed ahead of the free software ideology. Since companies are trying to make money by supporting open source software, they will want the software to remain unstable and complex, to create demand for their services. On the other hand, others feel that the influx of money into the open source movement will be good, guaranteeing that companies will spend money to hire dedicated programmers to work on open source projects (such as the 14 dedicated Linux kernel programmers employed by Red Hat). There is no easy answer as to how the economics of modern open source companies will eventually influence the movement, but for better or for worse, for-profit companies are a part of the open source movement that is here to stay.

Open source is certainly changing the world of software development, but is the movement worthy of being called a revolution? How far is the influence of open source likely to go? Certainly, open source has not yet caused a contraction of proprietary software development as some feared (and others hoped.) Software programs often are complementary goods, meaning that the availability of good open source software may in fact create a demand for proprietary software that complements it. On effect open source has certainly had is to force software retailers to focus more on service and support, in order to keep customers from defecting to free alternatives. In fact, open source has led to the creation of whole new proprietary software businesses that survive by providing customized open source based software solutions and support. So although open source programs do compete with proprietary software on many levels, the interaction between the two can hardly be viewed as purely combative.

The open source paradigm is certain to be a very important part of the future of software, but it is not likely to comprise the whole story.

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