The Problem With Open Source EquivalencyThe Problem With Open Source Equivalency
It's remarkable how the same article can contain both prescient insight and things that make me slap my head in dismay. In this case, it's a piece about the way open source software has eaten into commercial offerings, but it draws a distinction between proprietary and open source that might well not exist.</p>
July 10, 2009
It's remarkable how the same article can contain both prescient insight and things that make me slap my head in dismay. In this case, it's a piece about the way open source software has eaten into commercial offerings, but it draws a distinction between proprietary and open source that might well not exist.
The article in question, "Microsoft aims to price itself into the open source market", appeared courtesy of Danny O'Brien in the Irish Times. Ireland's economic explosion across the Nineties was due in large part to technology companies (Intel), so there's obviously more than casual curiosity about how open source will be deployed there. The piece itself tries to get a grip on the same central question that's bugged plenty of other people: what's all this stuff really worth? And for the most part it's spot-on.
... what's a fair price for something that has no quantity and for which the demand is unclear? What's the fair price for software? Right now, there doesn't seem to be any consensus - even from a single supplier.
There's some who would say that the fair price for software is approaching zero.
Open-source software, code freely written and freely distributed, has been doing an amazing job of inserting itself into markets where software had previously cost thousands.
There's more about the contrast between Microsoft and the FOSS market, and again for the most part it's solid. But his bit here, however, is where we part company. It's aimed at Microsoft, but it inadvertently castigates open source companies as well:
... Microsoft now sells almost identical products at a vast range of different price points.
... there has to be something a little distasteful about using a piece of software that you know has been deliberately crippled before you bought it.
It feels wrong, as though you've been sold intentionally damaged goods.
Say what you like about open-source software, it's impossible to deliberately limit it in this way.
Sure, except that the folks who sell and support open source do much the same thing!
If you want the core version of a commercially-supported open source product, you download it and use it as-is, and that core contains a good percentage of the total functionality. But if you want professional support, assisted installation, or features that require money (due to patent licensing or just because programmers like to eat, too), then you pay for that. The fact that the core cost is theoretically zero doesn't change anything; most people are not inclined to pay for things they don't use.
I suspect a good deal of the more strident rhetoric about open source -- the word from the "information wants to be free" camp -- has muddied the issue. It's all just a big bag o' bits, so how come you're charging me for these bits over here instead of those bits over there? Possibly because these bits over here actually required a lot of difficult and tedious work to produce, far more than those bits did. Most people would be rightfully averse to diluting the value of something they worked hard on and expect compensation for.
Now someone else can easily come up with an open source replacement for closed bits. They often do. But this doesn't automatically mean any given business model for proprietary bits is doomed. When I spoke to one open source vendor about this possibility viz. their flagship product, they claimed they weren't worried at all -- maybe because the features in question were really tough to get right, and a paid-developer version with more frequent upgrades and close customer support would be more likely to attract and keep an audience than a free version.
Okay, I just went back over what I read, and I admit that he may well be talking about "pure" open source, without any cost-plus vendor stuff. But let's face it -- any serious talk about open source in business, especially when it's flanked against proprietary software, is going to refer to open source that's sold and supported by someone.
There is plenty of good software available for free, and there no doubt will be much more to come. I look forward to using a lot of it. That does not mean all good software is going to be free, or should be -- or that all free software is going to be good. The laws of economics are just as unforgiving for things that have no overt pricetag attached.
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