foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world


Open source vs. proprietary? Turn the question around!

, posted: 11-Jun-2008 14:59

The failed argumentation for open source

Often you will find open source advocates trying to tell you all the reasons why you should use open source software: Access to the source, open data standards and cost are often mentioned. Sadly, while these arguments are actually very important – especially the ones relating to freedom of your data and freedom of choice – they are often not appreciated by the wider public. The significance of these issues usually only reveals itself after some exposure to the matter, some discussion and some thinking.

For example, the non-technical public will care very little about access to the source, not realising what degree of freedom this guarantees to them, even if they never look at the source themselves. Same with open data standards. Why change or even care if all the world seems to use the same 'standard' of some proprietary software package, right? The real issue of vendor lock-in is not usually on people's mind.

Why is proprietary the default, not open source?

So, in the end most of the arguments provided by open source advocates fall on deaf ears in the broader markets: They are just not compelling enough for most. But why is that? I mean: Why is it that open source needs to be compelling? Why is it open source that needs to prove its point and make its case?

Why is it not ... gasp! ... the other way around?

Seriously, I am often wondering why the default decision seems to be proprietary, and open source only if it is compelling for some reason, when it seems to be much more logical to think of open source first, and proprietary only if open source absolutely doesn't cut it for some reason.

Turning it around

Let's set a base here first, though, something we can all agree on. If you leave the final decisions open for discussion, it actually shouldn't take much for an option to become a default. Even a slight advantage should suffice to tip the scales at least a little bit. What can we say to convince the non-technical member of the public that open source should be the default? I think it can be explained to people that open source and open data standards – combined with the lack of license fees – actually are an advantage. Maybe only a small one in their eyes, but an advantage nevertheless.

I mean, nobody in their right mind would voluntarily choose software that costs more to purchase and that limits your choices as a consumer, right? Those two points are pretty difficult to argue with. Open source offers lower purchase cost and more freedom than proprietary software. It just might be that the person you talk to doesn't attach much importance to those points. Nevertheless, they are still advantages (no matter how small they may appear). And the zero-license-fee cost advantage is a pretty good point as well.

So, now we can finally turn that question around: Why use proprietary software, if an open source alternative exists?

It appears to me that open source should be the default decision in all cases, and for any kind of software, and that considering proprietary software should only be an option if it has very specific and valuable features that the open source solution doesn't offer. This guideline should specifically apply to public decision makers, which deal with data belonging to their citizens, with funds provided by the tax payers. But it is just as applicable to every single individual or household.

What are the compelling points for non-free software?

But apparently, proprietary software must have some compelling advantage over open source, since otherwise a sane individual wouldn't opt for restrictions over choice, limitations over freedom, paying more over paying less. So, what are those fantastic compelling advantages that it offers? Let's take a look at them.

  1. It has support. Really? For the most part, support is for those who pay for it. If you are willing to pay for support, though, you will find that you can get support for most any open source package you care to use. All the way from an open source OS to your favourite open source word processor. So, what exactly is the advantage of proprietary software again?

  2. It has those great features. And the open source equivalent doesn't have the feature? And you really need that feature? There are very few things you can do with Word that you cannot also do with OpenOffice, for example. Consider that proprietary vendors rely on license fees and thus need to make it interesting for you buy the next version. But – to stay with word processors for a while – these software packages are basically feature complete. Most of the features YOU need are included already. New features are added to these packages so that it looks like they might be worth the price of upgrade. In reality, it is quite likely that the open source equivalent of whatever you need well and truly exists already and is just as easy to use.

  3. Better interoperability. Once you are in a vendor's mono culture, you are being rewarded for giving them all your money by having stuff work together. But it is definitely not more interoperable. It's just more so for components from the same vendor. True interoperability relies on open standards, which should make it possible to swap out individual components for better or competing offerings by someone else. If true interoperability is what you care for, you should definitely choose open source, since due to its open source code implements open data standards by default.

  4. It is more secure because nobody can see the code. That's security through obscurity, which has often be shown to be a terribly bad idea and which makes things less secure, not more. In addition, open source offers the benefit of wider inspection of the source code. While no software is perfect, and while even open source can have its share of security issues as well, overall the security benefits of the open source approach have been shown many times already.

  5. It's what we are used to. Right. Here is one of the toughest nuts to crack. People don't like to learn new things. Especially, they don't like to learn how to do the same thing in a different way. They just figured out how to format a letter in this word processor, so why should they now learn to do it in some other way? However, the truth of the matter is that for most tasks the difference in how to do things is actually not that dramatic. This is particularly true for some of the most common software in widest use, such as web browsers, word processors and spreadsheets. Someone knowing one package shouldn't have huge problems any more to move on to another software.

  6. All our data is in the proprietary XYZ format. Ah, you can see already how your previous decision to use a proprietary software is now beginning to cramp your style. And that's why you want to continue to make the situation even worse by continuing to use it? The open source community has worked hard to reverse engineer many proprietary formats. You can read most documents now into open source software packages. Do that, convert them to open data formats and just don't make the mistake of using closed formats again going forward. This approach works for smaller sets of documents and individuals. For larger organisations with many documents it can indeed become daunting. But even here it is rarely insurmountable. Rather than paying the license fee cost for the next version upgrade, why not instead invest this money in a project that rescues your data from the proprietary formats and thus avoids the issue for you going forward, saving you a lot of money in the long run?

So, most of what could be seen as compelling reasons for proprietary software can be addressed and really evaporate into nothing under closer inspection. In light of this, ask yourself again: Should non-free software really be the default?

In conclusion

Several decades ago the software 'industry' managed to re-write our perception of history and make most people believe that proprietary software is normal, and open source is the aberration, while in reality software actually started out as open.

It is time to change our thinking and to stop trying to justify the use of open source software. It doesn't need justification like that. Free and open software should be the logical, sensible default choice in all cases, with proprietary software only to be considered when there are compelling reasons for it.




Other related posts:
UK government supports open source
25 open source projects for software development
Dabbling in OpenSolaris








Comment by Uncle B, on 12-Jun-2008 03:05

Programs are written in languages, languages, phrases in languages, and ways of expressing things in languages are not patentable except in the U.S. where money talks loudest and makes the laws too! The average American kid is not allowed, by patent law, to sit down, look into the workings of his software, extrapolate from what he sees their and develop something he finds personally useful or interesting (or God Forbid, salable!). This stfiling of American youth and American intellectual power conveniently improper interpretation of American law is a foreboding symptom of Democracy run amok. The middle classes and lower are going to be 'dead meat' if this trend continues. An elitist ultra-rich uber-class has clearly hijacked Democracy and there will be Hell to pay for the average American!


Comment by KevDaly, on 12-Jun-2008 06:14

For significant applications free software is an illusion (which doesn't mean I am arguing that people shouldn't use software they are not charged for...I'm simply point out that it isn't really "free". It doesn't grow on trees). Software inevitably costs money to produce (I know you're not silly enough to think it's an easy or trivial activity), so it is being paid for by somebody at some point.
People need to understand the economic model that applies to the software they want to use.
There is no intrinsic connection between software being "free" and source code being available, unless we want to redefine the meaning of common English words (Oh, wait...) - in the mainframe world (God help us) it's still common to be given source code for your very-much-not-free software, especially crappy Cobol packages. That's how people make the damn things sort-of-kinda-almost work.

Still, I have to admire the skill with which companies like IBM, Oracle and so on have persuaded thousands or millions of developers world-wide to effectively work for them for free. 
But then, we are a gullible bunch. 


Comment by Piri, on 12-Jun-2008 07:50

Ever needed to open a MS Excel file sent to you in .xlsx or xml format and you don't have the latest version of Office? The latest Excel viewer won't read it. Microsoft offer a "Compatibility Pack" which you need to install and go through a convoluted process via Explorer to convert, save then open - doesn't always work - very productive that is. So your choices? Be kind to Microsoft and shell out many dollars to upgrade to their latest and greatest? Or install OpenOffice for zero dollars - it will open them no problems. In the past I have resurrected a corrupt excel spreadsheet that Excel itself could not open by simply opening it with OO and resaving in Excel format. Our company is wedded to MS - but OO is creeping into more of our workstations. OO has all the functionality we need, and more. You don’t need a spreadsheet to work out that math.


Comment by Sergey Sedlovsky, on 12-Jun-2008 10:08

You know... lets say linux does have all of the features from the workstation side (Editing a document, editing a photo, etc...) did you ever see a person that doesn't want to play a little bit every now and then, have fun after all the work they did? Sure, console is a solution, going out and having fun with friends is also a solution but what are computer games for then?


Author's note by foobar, on 12-Jun-2008 13:44

@KevDaly: Actually, yes, I think this is the problem: The word 'free' needs to be redefined, because I was using it for 'free as in freedom', not 'free as in free beer'. Free/libre software doesn't always have to come with a $0 price-tag. But it always gives you the freedom to examine, modify, change, pass on and copy. It respects your freedoms as a user. It's "Freedom-respecting software", rather than "'Freedom-limiting software".

Anyway, Oracle and IBM and such are huge contributors to the Linux kernel and many other OS projects. They contribute via their own paid developers, and everyone who uses Linux benefits from their contributions. It is not correct to imply that they are freeloading off the community. Quite the opposite, actually.

Also, there are a lot of commercial open source companies, which develop their own products and release them then instantly as open source. They often get few community contributions, but see the advantage of the open source business model, which often comes in conjunction with the open source development model. I'm working for such a company. Nothing free (as in 'no cost') there for the company.

So, yes, of course it costs to develop software, but many of the biggest beneficiaries of open source (not all of course) are also contributors. And for most of the new crop of open source companies this is definitely the case.


Author's note by foobar, on 12-Jun-2008 13:48

@Sergey Sedlovsky: Actually, I don't play those computer games. Maybe I would if I would run Windows, but I don't and so it's just not worth the trouble for me to go and even shell out money for it. I have a family, I have very little time to read books as is. No time to get much into playing games. If I do want to play games on the computer, I play 'Desktop Tower Defense' or 'Five or More'.

I bet that many of those who recently got computers are not big into gaming either. I'm talking about those who got a computer because of the Internet. They want to be online, e-mail their grandchildren, maybe write a letter occasionally. Very likely not hardcore gamers. They would be perfectly served with a Linux desktop, actually.

Then take the corporate customers: Gaming will be no consideration for them at all. Again, Linux would be a perfect desktop for them.


Comment by John, on 12-Jun-2008 14:26

Why do I buy closed source software? Because I find it is generally reliable, easy to use and consistant. It is also inexpensive, given that I upgrade infrequently (~5-10 years). My experience with Shareware and Freeware in the past has been that there have been design faults, poor or non-existant documentation, bugs, features poorly implemented. Most problems seem to be related to poor design, rather than poor coding.

When I tried Open Office about 2 years ago, it wouldn't open my 10,000 cell spreadsheet and didn't have a graphing wizard. It certainly was a poor cousin compared to my favourite Office97. Deciding to upgrade to Office 2007 this year (expected cost: about 60c a week over its life) I have a new interface that is easier to use than the old style, but it also comes with OneNote, an amazing application that I regret not using when it arrived with my new laptop 2 years ago.

I challenge you to find an equivalent to OneNote, but I don't want to waste your time. Similarly for Mathematica, a hideously expensive program that designed by really intelligent people with Ph.D's that can solve more maths problems that my brain will understand. I just bought the academic version, it's pretty mind boggling.

Tina, an electronic circuit design app, well worth it, lots of people have been paid money to create this program which is consistant, reliable, and worth paying for.

In my 18 years of computing, I have probably tried at least 130 different freeware and shareware applications, and I can say that the quality of a 'commercial' app is well worth it.


Comment by Paolo Brizzolari, on 13-Jun-2008 02:48

I have nothing against open source or free software, I just wanted to point out that there is a market for both open and closed source. The fact that some people are willing to pay for Microsoft or Apple or any other company to write them software is just indicative that the software is worth paying for.

Why is it that the 2 models are mutually exclusive. At the end of the day it is good for everyone that there is competition in the market. Microsoft producing new and interesting versions of their software just forces open source developers to up their game and vice versa.

Now my only question is, is everyone up to the challenge?


Author's note by foobar, on 13-Jun-2008 05:35

@John: I think it depends on what you are looking for. You cannot generalise it and say that the "quality of a 'commercial' app is well worth it", because that is not always the case. Many people will argue that Linux or FreeBSD is a better operating system than Windows for many tasks. Firefox, many will say, is better than IE. And so on. Besides: What is 'better'? Linux may be the better server OS, while Windows is a better consumer/multimedia OS. 'Better' itself is relative. Spending a lot of money on Vista and getting DRM on your now generally slower performing computer is defintly not worth it, commerical or not.

In general, the choice of open source vs. closed source is not only about price. This is probably the biggest challenge that opens source has. If you look at it based on price then this will not matter to some (as I mentioned in my article). You are one of those to whom it doesn't matter. On the other hand, there is a feature that open source has, which no closed software can offer. It protects your own freedom, gives you (or others) the ability to modify it if you don't like it, etc. Don't like the DRM in Vista? Tough luck! Someone else now determines what you can and cannot do with your own data. You just gave up that freedom and there's nothing you can do about it. DRM in Linux? No! And if it would be there, it would quickly be removed by someone. That's freedom. Being able to take your data and load it into a competing or better program? That's freedom. Having your data locked into a vendor proprietary format out of which there is no escape? That's what closed source software gives you.

On usability: OpenOffice has gotten much better over the last two years as well, you might want to give it a try again. And some of the other examples you mentioned - Mathematica and Tina - are very specialised pieces of software. Read my article again and you will find that I said: Open source should be the default, and proprietary software should only be considered when there are compelling reasons for it. If you need specialised applications for which there really is no open-source equivalent then you know what you have to do.

As long as open source solutions are explored first, and proprietary software is used only as the fall-back, if open source really doesn't offer what you need, I think we are fine.


Author's note by foobar, on 13-Jun-2008 05:43

@Paolo Brizzolari: Competition is fine. In fact, while open source constantly competes with itself, sometimes to its detriment, we can actually see the example of open source being necessary to start some sort of progress with the proprietary market leader. IE languished around for the longest time, after Microsoft defeated Netscape. Only the arrival and strengthening of the open source Firefox finally brought Microsoft around to do something about IE and improve it a little.

But don't think that "people ... pay for Microsoft or Apple or any other company to write them software". That would be bespoke development and it's not the case. The software is first written and then a concentrated marketing effort is started to create demand. That is very different. Consumers are told that they just 'got to have it', whether they really need the new version of this or that or not. And because people are 'used' to this commercial software model (see last paragraph of my article) it doesn't occur to them that maybe there could be alternatives.

Now see my previous comment, the reply to John. There are some specialised applications for which there may not be an open source equivalent. Fine. In that case I guess proprietary software is your only choice if you really need them. But if you objectively look at your options, you will find that starting with open source makes sense. That should be the first choice. Only consider priprietary if absolutely necessary, since with open source you protect your freedom. With proprietary you give it up. That's a pretty nice feature of open source software, and any fancy new interface in a proprietary piece of software is not worth it. For me at least.


Comment by William Gordon, on 13-Jun-2008 10:21

Hear Hear! Open Source by default. That's why I love my Eee 900 (one of the first few in NZ). What a brilliant machine - and the OS/Apps become transparent in the sense that anyone can pick it up and use it.

Then you say, did you know you're using linux and other Open Source software?

"Really? But it's not even hard!"

And *there* is the perception that's out there.

On another note, I think - perhaps - another item for your list would be "Everyone else uses it" which is slightly different from interoperability.

Another great post foobar - thanks for caring!


Author's note by foobar, on 13-Jun-2008 10:28

@William Gordon: Yes, the EEE PC provides a rather eye opening FOSS experience to many. However, as you indicated: Most people aren't even aware that they are using FOSS. But see what I wrote here. This is not necessaryly all good news for FOSS either...


Comment by Bob Ray, on 15-Sep-2010 16:23

Excellent points, but I think the most obvious answer to the original question (why is proprietary the default?) is that companies selling proprietary solutions have slicker marketing materials, due to a much higher advertising and promotion budget, and can often afford to send an experienced salesperson out to make their case. They employ people whose jobs depend on making that case and they are highly motivated to move the client in that direction.

Open Source projects just don't have the resources to do that because they don't have marketing built into their sales price.


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New Zealand


  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
  • Where I have been: Here and there, all over the place.




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