The open source (OS) revolution has been hugely successful – from Linux to Mozilla to WordPress. Even the world’s favorite encyclopedia, Wikipedia, falls under this broad “open” umbrella.
And it’s not difficult to understand their popularity:
- They’re infinitely expandable, with add-ons and plug-ins.
- They’re supported by huge, enthusiastic communities.
- They benefit from tremendous security (through community vetting).
And arguably most important, they’re free.
So why hasn’t the open revolution taken over all aspects of IT?
Open source clearly works for operating systems and encyclopedias. But you’d think that given the advantages listed above, the OS movement would’ve gained more traction among end-user tools – especially those marketed towards consumers.
Perhaps one day they will.
But the current OS model still has limitations. Customers expect a certain level of service and commitment from vendors – and open source solutions don’t really meet those expectations for several key reasons.
Let’s take a look.
Reason 1: The OS Model Isn’t Really Free
Open source tools are free alternatives that match (or rival) commercially available solutions.
But there are hidden costs embedded in the OS model:
- The creators must invest countless hours maintaining and debugging each platform. But sooner or later, development stops and the majority of products dead-end. Even stable builds eventually become neglected or obsolete.
- The user faces costs as well. By its very nature, open source is “vendor-less.” Online forums can help. But configuring and troubleshooting are ultimately the user’s responsibility. There’s no tech support hotline one can call.
Reason 2: Open Source Lacks Accountability
This point is similar to the above. But there is no accountability built into the open source business model. Developers aren’t beholden to end-users. And there is no invisible hand of economics to ensure certain features come to market.
Sure, you can submit “feature requests.” But developers aren’t obliged to fulfill users’ wishes.
And that’s to be expected. There are only so many hours in the day. And if developers focus on anything at all, it will usually be their own pet projects or desired features.
With a large enough community, this isn’t always a problem. If the market gap is substantial enough, someone will eventually develop a solution to fill that gap. We see this all the time with Firefox add-ons and WordPress plug-ins.
But it’s very hard to build a community that large. And we tend to remember the handful of successes while forgetting the thousands and thousands of failures.
Reason 3: Open Source Can Be Distracting
OS solutions sometimes force users to become their own vendors. Remember that there are hidden costs associated with using each tool. And once locked in, there’s no guarantee that key features will materialize.
As a result, users often have to make improvements on their end.
For many, this is a deal-breaker. Most people don’t know code – end of story.
Those who do understand programming might not mind. But digging into the code distracts them from more important activities – like running a business.
And that defeats the whole purpose of using tools. You don’t buy a power drill to understand its inner workings. You buy it because you need to bore holes in the wall.
Does That Mean OS Development Is a Bad Idea?
No. Not at all. The open source revolution is still immensely helpful in countless ways:
- OS solutions are great catalysts for innovation. They provide a nice “kick in the butt” for continued commercial development.
- Open source is good at identifying new market opportunities – often without requiring centralized investment. The “startup” costs are spread across a much larger community.
- OS can produce solutions that the market can’t or won’t. Tools arise because of personal desires – not because of the invisible hand of economics.
That’s why we remain receptive to open source principles. In fact, we design many of our own solutions with OS integration in mind. This approach ensures that our tools benefit from the community feedback and security that make open source so successful.
However, it’s not always possible to incorporate these benefits on our own. We sometimes have to partner with those who develop services based on popular OS tools. These partners advise us on everything from infrastructure to best practices to features.
And we like such arrangements. By combining commercial development with open source innovation, we’re able to create a more interoperable platform for everyone.
This model has served us very well. And our users seem to enjoy the results.
So we don’t expect OS development to ever disappear completely. Despite certain limitations, the benefits of open source are impossible to ignore.
Share your thoughts below.