What is it about Open Source?

Whilst working with my friend and colleague, Alan Bell, to set up our new business providing Open Source training and consulting, I have found the most amazing levels of enthusiasm and cynicism surrounding the Open Source phenomenon.

Some of the proponents extol the virtues of FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) as if it will bring the world to complete evangelical salvation, whereas the other end of the spectrum seem to believe it is a communist led conspiracy to do away with free markets and economic growth.

My personal opinion is – as you’ve probably guessed – somewhere in the middle. Open Source is great: It’s [mostly] free! It works! Proprietary software is [usually] expensive. It [almost always] ties you into one vendor. Some of it is very clever indeed and worth every penny; but I haven’t got any pennies to spend…

I read an article today on an Australian “IT news” website that read like it came from an “industry expert” (or at least someone who had done their research). Little could be further from the truth however… It’s title is “A cynic rips open source.”

The concluding argument of this article says:

” A cynic might suggest that the people writing open source software are the ones who are making their daytime living working for a proprietary-solutions vendor and spend their nights tearing down the very house they live in. And that if open source replaced proprietary solutions, these people would not be able to make a daytime living that supports their night time hobby.

A cynic would be right.”

Now, I do not want to sound like one of the evangelical FLOSS brigade, but anyone with a modicum of intelligence would be able to do 10 minutes digging around the ‘net to find that this conclusion is completely and utterly wrong.

Take the recent and very extensive report commissioned by the EU which found that of the 131,000 man years worth of effort, and €22bn worth of EU investment in FLOSS, only around 10% of the participants who write Open Source software work for proprietary software companies. The vast majority work in the Enterprises which the author so cynically believes are using FLOSS purely to beat down the cost of proprietary systems.

There are many other reports and statistical data being produced which confirm that Open Source Software is becoming a mainstream tool in businesses everywhere. Even in mission-critical application areas such as ERP. We have some statistical data on our (still work-in-progress) website at http://www.theopenlearningcentre.com and a feed from Google News for all things happening in the FLOSS world.

The original article that ‘got my goat’ can be read here: http://www.computerworld.com.au/index.php/id;810329453;fp;4;fpid;1968336438 (but note there is no option for public comments).

The EU Report on the impact of FLOSS can be obtained from here: http://flossimpact.eu/

Me thinks that the cynic is hopelessly wrong…



  • Great topic. I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of what people who write open source software have as “day jobs”.

    On the one hand, you have Linux, where there are a great number of people who support and enhance the various flavors (and the kernel itself) SPECIFICALLY as their day jobs — because there are actually companies who are making money off of supporting Linux! Imagine that. For example:

    Most customers who use Linux, use a distribution like Red Hat or Ubuntu or SuSE and that although there are certainly a lot of developers who work for free, most of the people who do the daily work on the Linux kernel are paid to do so. Typically they are paid by IT companies who have a commercial interest in Linux. This isn’t FUD, it’s reality (Corbet from LWN did a great analysis of this here citing “at least 65% of the code which went into 2.6.20 was created by people working for companies”).

    People act like it’s a bad thing, to get paid to write Linux code. It’s not. It’s fantastic. Free software can make money.

    And then when you expand the argument to ALL open source software, you have something like Eric Raymond’s discussion about people who write commercial versus in-house software:

    When I speak at technical conferences, I usually begin my talk by asking two questions: how many in the audience are paid to write software, and for how many do their salaries depend on the sale value of software. I generally get a forest of hands for the first question, few or none for the second, and considerable audience surprise at the proportion.

    And he’s right — most of us professional software developers write very little code (if any) that is ever sold on the open market. We write code that no one ever sees, to support internal processes.

    The notion that “the people writing open source software are the ones who are making their daytime living working for a proprietary-solutions vendor and spend their nights tearing down the very house they live in” is just plain wrong. A very small percentage of programmers work for a “proprietary-solutions vendor” at all, much less in a capacity that creates saleable software. Most of the people writing open source software seem to be either (A) people who get paid to write open source software like Linux or MySQL, or (B) people who get paid to write code that will never be seen outside the walls of their company.

    Sorry for the long comment. Love the blog. Nice job.

    – Julian

  • Alan Lord says:

    Thanks for the contribution Julian,

    It is interesting that you articulate a difference between Kernel devs and “the rest” of the FLOSS community. I hadn’t really considered that kind of separation before. But thinking about it now you are almost certainly bang-on the nail. Thinking about the comments I read on various mailing lists, a great deal of the core stuff: Kernel, Glibc and GCC do seem to be handled by RH, Novell and the other big players… Good point!

    But the overall conclusions we both agree on – “which is nice…”



  • Green says:


    Cool! Its really cool….

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