Business Reasons for Open Source

I read John Marks’ comments on onlamp (pointer by slashdot today) about Open Source efforts. He claims it’s not so much a community as a reasonable business choice.

When taking stock of vertical software markets, I notice a decided lack of open source alternatives to commercial software. One could test assertions made in previous paragraphs by looking at vertical markets that have recently broadened in scope following an increase in the sheer number of inhabitants in that market. If the above assertions are true, there should be an emerging open source ecosystem in that market, albeit less mature and feature-complete than competing commercial products.

My experience in the aeronautics technical field is that there are high-dollar packages. But NASA also releases some fantastic tools as Open Source. Research TetrUSS as one example. It’s special among government circles because in that environment, it’s tremendously important for an office or organization to have self-value. NASA is going through this soul searching right now, and so are the Air Force Research Labs. Both of these organizations are examples where releasing Open Source serves legal commitments to tax payers (the reason), and organizational self-survival tactics (the motive).

With prices approaching zero, software developers have two choices when trying to win over users: (1) add features not available elsewhere, and (2) release the source code. There is no other currency of value that developers can extend to users.

I believe there are 3 orthogonal metrics for software: Functionality, Performance, and Usabilty. Performance is how quickly, efficiently the software accomplishes functions. Usability captures the relationship between the software and the user. If you include cost, there are really 4 instead of 3 value metrics, and the argument that low cost is the only parameter for a software provider to reach customers with weakens. Hence the business case for Open Source weakens.

If you think cost can be isolated as the primary driving factor, the Apple v. Wintel saga tends to support your opinion. However, if you believe low cost and ease of adoptability will lead to the economies of scale necessary to add things like functionality, better performance and usability, the Apple/Wintel considerations shows you incorrect. Althougth Wintel enjoys economies of scale, it’s actually Apple that generally exhibits better functionality and usability and performance. ©

About Brian

Engineer. Aviator. Educator. Scientist.
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