written in 2009 and made me an unpopular figure
in open source circles :). Despite that, very
little in the way of refutation was ever written
apart from this.
I've updated this essay in 2014 to
mention crowd-funding and attached a further
Problems of Open Source
Dr Mark Tarver, 2009, 2014
I want here
to talk about the open source movement and some
of the ideas behind it. I guess I should first
define what I mean by 'open source'.
Twenty years ago, the phrase 'open source' had a
definite meaning in computing which is quite
different from the sense it has now. In 1990 when
you said a program was 'open source', you meant
that you could read the source code; the actual
code the person had written to create the
program. Closed source programs did not give you
that ability. Beyond that, there were no
requirements on open source. In theory one could
charge for open source code or place restrictions
on it's use.
Eric S. Raymond wrote a famous essay The
Cathedral and the Bazaar in which he
argued that all software should be open source.
The phrase 'took on' and came to mean something
different from what it originally meant. 'Open
source' came to mean not only were the sources
readable, but also that users had the right to do
with the code pretty much what they wanted. 'Open
source' then became associated with licenses like
BSD and MIT in which the author not only made the
software readable, but also effectively
relinquished any creative or financial control
over his creation. These licenses were not new;
what was new was the redefinition of 'open
source'. Later the Open Source Initiative formed
to propagandise this ideal of 'sharing'.
I see this
shift in the meaning of 'open source' as a
retrograde step, because it made a mudball of
several distinct ideas; making software readable,
charging for the commercial use of code, and
exerting creative control over one's work. These
are quite distinct choices and OSI philosophy
masked many real choices by redefining 'open
failed attempt to trademark the phrase 'open
source', so successful has been the OSI marketing
that many programmers never pause to consider
that these topics should or even can be
discussed separately on their own terms.
follows I will use the word FOSS meaning
free open source software to conform
to what the OSI call 'open source', reserving the
term 'open source' or 'readable source' in it's
Free As in
Free Speech becomes Free As in Free Beer
about FOSS or free open source of which BSD/MIT
licensed software is an example. There is also
the GPL licensed software too, which allows
distribution of source provided that the sources
are readable and users are given the freedom to
change the code at will. However any software
incorporating GPLed code must itself be GPLed
(the infamous 'viral' condition). If I
write 1000 lines of code and borrow 100 lines of
GPL code, my entire program has to be GPLed. The
author of the GPL and its staunch defender is
Richard Stallman, head of the Free Software
calls GPLed code 'free' and explains that his
freedoms are there to facilitate the exchange of
source, and that the freedom he talks about is
more akin to 'free speech' than 'free beer'.
of the BSD/MIT have rightly pointed out that
Stallman's 'freedoms' actually incorporate an
important restriction on what one can do with
GPLed code because of the viral condition and
question whether such programs can be 'free' in
the way that Stallman insists. If one is not free
to do as one likes with a GPL program, can it be
free in the way Stallman insists? Probably not.
'free as in speech' vs 'free as in beer' line
really does not scan. 'Free as in speech' does
not mean 'free as in beer',
but in fact if you look for GPL software it
is almost always 'free as in
beer'. If you try to sell GPL software, it is
possible for your punter to buy it, write some
trivial change and resell it under GPL for less,
undercutting you. By parity of reasoning this can
be repeated down the chain until the price tends
to zero. So designers using the GPL nearly always
make their work free. The same argument applies
to FOSS code; FOSS code is almost always free of
Why is Free
Software so Bad in Quality?
software is poor or unusable. This is heavily
disguised because protagonists like to use the
isolated points fallacy to sell the
idea FOSS is great.
isolated points fallacy consists in taking the
high scoring points on the graph and ignoring all
the other points. Hence FOSS champions wheel out
the standard examples of success - Star Office,
Emacs, Red Hat Linux, and SBCL - ignoring the
vast sea of floating half submerged buggy and
abandoned projects (over 120,000) that litter
SourceForge. It is the sort of technique Mugabe
would use for TV. If you're accused of starving
the country, wheel out a handful of well
nourished kids for people to see. 'Look, our
country is fine; see how healthy these kids are'.
Out in the slums the less fortunate die of
the great debate between BSD/MIT, GPL and the
closed source people there is an important truth
about software development which gets obscured.
It's absolutely basic. Here it is.
software arises when one or more very good
programmers work closely full time together over
a period of time developing, maintaining and
Very simple. Except its not, because if you're
lucky enough to attract such a team you need to
keep them together. And for that you need capital
and that is exactly where FOSS falls down. This
is the main reason why so much FOSS is of poor
Built Out of Corporation and Tax Money
What I've been saying might not seem apparent at
first because FOSS champions wheel out a lot of
standard examples line OpenOffice, Linux, and
SBCL they say. So let's look at them.
Open Office was derived from Star Office which
was the product of StarDivision and Sun
Microsystems. It was not put together by a hacker
living in his moms spare bedroom, but by a
team of professionally qualified, highly paid and
very able software engineers who were working for
a company that made and sold products according
to a classic capitalist model. Without the input
from that team and the funding from that model
there would be no Star Office. Star Office became
FOSS and thus Open Office purely because Sun were
willing to support a loss leader in order to
acquire part of the Microsoft market. The FOSS
model never supported Star Office and I doubt
that it would have ever done so.
Emacs was supported financially by people working
at the MIT AI Lab, which means that it was funded
by Uncle Sam. It was not invented by Richard
Stallman contrary to popular myth, although he
did grab the sources and improved them and tried
successfully to claim as much credit as he could.
Its real cost in market terms was
effectively many thousands of tax dollars and it
was paid for as such by Joe Schmoe.
SBCL is at the moment the leading open source
Common Lisp platform. But it was, and is, deeply
indebted to CMU CL from which it was a fork. CMU
CL was again an Uncle Sam project being funded
originally by DARPA and the guys who developed it
were top class professionals who were paid a lot
of money to do it. Sans CMU
CL, SBCL would not have got off the ground.
Linux is of course, mostly a copy of Unix,
despite howls to the contrary it is deeply
unoriginal, being based on ideas going back to
the time of the Vietnam War. These ideas were in
turn evolved within Bell Labs by its creators who
were also well-paid professionals. Linus Torvalds
really copied an idea whose basis had been funded
by university and corporation money and without
that basis there would have been no Linux.
That being said, Linux is a generic name for a
group of platforms. Last time I looked there were
about 50 or so Linuxes and if you were to take a
pin and blindfold and choose one, it would be
Gods Will if it worked properly or not.
Quite often the answer is not. My
Ubuntu version of 2005 was an absolute crock that
wasted the plastic on which it was distributed.
Ubuntu was itself a loss-making personal hobby of
a guy who had so many millions that he could
afford the practical joke of distributing
something that he knew did not work. Eventually
perhaps they got it to work, after wasting untold
hours of peoples time. As a professional
friend of mine said Free open source is
free if your time is worth nothing.
These flagship implementations of the FOSS
movement are in fact pointers to the intellectual
incoherency of the whole movement. These
implementations were deeply dependent on models
of funding to which the FOSS community are either
allergic or indifferent. The attempts of the FOSS
movement to present a coherent economic case have
been totally unconvincing. After having condemned
closed source as immoral, Richard Stallmans
basis for an economically sustainable basis for
FOSS is donations (i.e begging) and selling
T-shirts. The case as presented by Stallman would
be a joke if it were not that people actually
took him seriously. As a software revolutionary
Stallmans closest intellectual relative is
The Red Hat
Story is Misleading
FOSSers who actually try to engage with this
issue generally do so by arguing that FOSSers
make money by selling support and advertising.
They point at Red Hat. So let's look at Red Hat.
years, hand-holding for Red Hat Linux platforms
was an absolute necessity since the design and
implementation of this platform was so poor that
without hand-holding or a serious investment of
time, the average user would be lost. Torvalds
himself criticised an early distribution of Red
Hat as totally unusable and unfit for
distribution. But in the heady days of the dotcom
boom it was easy for Red Hat to capitalise its
ideas and eventually they worked their way from
total mediocrity to a strong market position.
But even so
you will notice that Red Hat is mainly popular
with server administraters and geeks. Its
penetration into the desktop market remains very
small; generally because Linux designers have
still not mastered the idea that people would
prefer to use their computers to do stuff
that they find interesting
rather than recompiling their OS. It is
precisely because Linux is complex, demanding and
sometimes quirky that there exists a
market for administering it at the server end.
You can sell your services to people if what you
produce is sufficiently complex or difficult that
people cannot use it easily. They'll pay you to
save the hassle. And if you look at the areas in
which FOSS has been commercially successful,
Apache and other initiatives, you will find that
they nearly all have this pattern.
But if you
produce something that is highly useful, easy to
use, intuitive, reliable and well documented,
then giving it away as FOSS is commercial suicide
because there is little or no market value for
your services. The market value is in the product
and not in your services. And here is the irony,
because software that is useful, easy to use,
intuitive, reliable and well documented is precisely
the paradigm of what software should be.
FOSS is often a recipe for half-baked freebies
that displace good software because they are
free, but which then go on to soak up
everybodys time by being full of bugs that
require support (i.e. your time or
money) to heal. Good software is properly
documented, does not break and does not require
hand-holding to use it. Consequently the FOSS
economic model does not favour good
well-documented software as popularly claimed.
What it does favour is buggy, constantly evolving
software that needs support and gets dropped as
people lose interest.
crowd funding solve the economic problems of open
certainly not for most projects. If you look at
the most funded projects on Kickstarter, they
fall into the category of gadgets and games.
There are a few software projects that have
attracted significant funding (like Light Table)
but not that many. Certainly the average
successful Kickstarter funding of about $5,000
will not carry any business much beyond the first
quarter of its first year.
facts of open source economics poke through like
the bones of an undernourished cadaver when you
look at some famous open source projects. In
January 2014, OpenBSD entered financial crisis
when it could not pay its electricity bill. After
an extraordinary appeal it was rescued by a
bailout of $100,000. But the total annual revenue
of this open source leader is actually only that
of a single associate professor; not exactly big
A look at
Linux Mint, a well-known Linux distro, shows that
the total income from donations is in the region
of $50,000-60,000. In other words, the income by
donation of two top rated open source companies
pushing software used by many thousands is only
scratching the income of a middle income
open source funders have recognised that open
source companies not only need kickstarts, they
also need a continuos income stream to sustain
them beyond the start phase. BountySource was
introduced to carry this through. The idea was
that projects could be posed and bounties placed
on them for people to complete them. Great idea.
But when you look at the income stream from
bounties, the top scoring ace programmer
for the entire site (who had to beat
hundreds of programmers to make the top spot)
pulled down about $50,000 for the year. That's
actually below the going rate for a full time
programmer in the USA (but maybe he's in Bombay
and living it up?). Second place went to a guy
with $34,000 and third $8,000. The rest probably
got holiday money.
funding is not an adequate long-term income
model. The 451 group has likewise concluded
that open source
economics is not a business model.
been made of Android, the hand-held OS from
Google. Android is Linux on a weight-loss
program, sans scruffy beard and wearing cool
shades. But Android has very little to do with
open source methodology or economics. To quote
what we said earlier.
Star Office was the
product of StarDivision and Sun Microsystems. It
was not put together by a hacker living in his
moms spare bedroom, but by a team of
professionally qualified, highly paid and very
able software engineers who were working for a
company that made and sold products according to
a classic capitalist model.
Android to a T. Android is a product of a lot of
professional engineers working at Google who
borrow selectively from OS code and write much of
their own stuff. Android is financed by Google's
enormous advertising revenue and the purpose is
to penetrate the hand-held market and make money.
Nothing wrong with that, but nothing particularly
relevant to going open source unless you're the
size of Google.
Corporations Support Open Source?
people defend open source by pointing out that
companies like IBM etc. use it. I find this
droll; that a movement that was so consciously
set up in defiance of the evil M$ empire should
seek its justification in the support of
corporations like IBM. Of course the corporations
support it. It's good for them! But only a fool
thinks that what is good for IBM is automatically
good for the little guy.
FOSS, companies like IBM had to spend millions of
dollars on R&D to keep up. To have a market
model where innovators who cannot capitalise
their ideas, freely share their best ideas and
code with the corporations who can take advantage
of them is great for IBM. Its like having a
self-basting turkey that moults spontaneously and
steps into the oven.
trend in FOSS is away from the GPL and towards
MIT/BSD. That's no surprise, because GPL is
awkward for corporations. Red Hat endorses the
MIT/BSD model. And as corporations encourage the
development of these new liberal licenses, we
find that Stallman is being exorcised as an aging
hippy, not 'with it', an embarrassment, uncouth,
and so on. In plain terms, Stallman has outlived
his usefulness as a stooge. There are better and
brighter ways to encourage FOSS than the aging
GPL. Goodbye Mr Stallman.
Source is not often Innovative
lot of FOSS is poorly written reverse-engineered
copies of existing commercial software.
Innovation is hard; it requires time and
brains. Reverse engineering is a powerful
disincentive to innovation since anybody who does
spend R&D capital in innovation, can have
their ideas reverse engineered.
stuff that exists is easier and cheaper. And
that means that there is less commercial
incentive to develop new and better things as
long as there is money to be made from patching
and teaching old technology. In a society where
fuel-inefficient old Fords were free, nearly
everybody would drive one and the auto industry
would wither. Mechanics would be like Cubans,
scratching a living fixing old Fords. And that
pretty much describes the way that many FOSSers
work. Scratching around on the antique Linux
operating system and writing kludges.
depresses me to see that young geeks think that
Linux is cool whereas its design is old enough to
be getting a bald patch and a mortgage if it were
human. They should be innovating.
Imagine a young aerodynamics engineer
graduating from college and contemplating a life
servicing DC 10s! Nobody with any innovation in
them would want to do it. Yet somehow this is
projected as a glamorous career move in
computing. And if they do innovate and their
innovation is good then its just as likely to be
swept away from them by the corporations who have
the capital to exploit it. Thanks for the idea
and there's a small bag of peanuts by the exit.
most smart people would steer away from
programming as a career for just these reasons. I
don't think the smartest of our young Americans
are in the game any more; its mainly educated
immigrants escaping from bad conditions who'll do
most anything for a visa. The smart move for
young Americans is MBA and Law.
and Closed Source is There to Protect Inventors
One of the
weirder things about the FOSS movement is the
dislike of copyright and closed source. These are
Bad Things and only people like M$ promote them
is the official line. Stallman goes as far as
denying creative rights altogether. But copyright
law exists to protect innovators from companies
like M$ who would otherwise exploit their work
and give nothing to the innovator. It is the
function of law, properly conceived, to act as
the great leveller, allowing the weak to stand
next the strong under the protection of law.
Remove the protection of law and the Golden Rule
applies; he who has the most gold makes the
If FOSS is
Often Poor, Does it Matter?
and discerning members of the FOSS community will
admit that an awful lot of FOSS is really quite
poor. However they insist that this really does
not matter since some significant fraction (and
they admit this may actually less than 5%) is
really quite good and that's the stuff we should
use. Hence the argument is 'Yes; a lot of FOSS is
awful but that's not important because you don't
have to use it.'
problem is that the FOSS user may not stumble on
this magical fraction and the invisible iceberg
of buggy, ill-conceived FOSS lies submerged ready
to rip out the bottom of your leisure time and
send that lazy weekend to the bottom. In fact,
FOSS uses massive amounts of user time trawling
through defunct and buggy applications and
posting to forums in search of the magic
configuration. FOSS users, being zealots, tend to
be blind to this. They treat the sunk costs of
their learning through hard experience as zero,
which is wrong. The cost of having to deal with
software which should never have been issued is
significant - even if you finally junk it. Bad
software will injure your leisure time and your
Does Not Need Free Open Source
FOSS is so often an intellectual fraud
perpetrated on the young, and one that benefits
corporations who profit from it. It is partly
maintained by the naivete of every rising
generation of youth who imagine that by producing
FOSS they are saving the world. Ive
frequently heard it said Without FOSS I
never would have learnt Blub. This is
wrong. People who think like this think of a
world without FOSS as the world as it
exists now minus FOSS. What they should
do is think What would the
world have turned out like without FOSS?
respect to Lisp, I think that the commercial
environments that are now on offer would be
considerably cheaper, since Franz and LispWorks
would have made important economies of scale in
being able to sell their products in terms of the
hundreds of thousands instead of the hundreds.
And for anybody who has used them, these products
are better than the FOSS equivalent. So the
chances are if there was no FOSS, you would have
learnt Blub anyhow and be using a better product,
even if you had to pay a modest price for it.
does need idealism and young people; but why
waste your talents on FOSS? Go out and save the
Siberian tiger; why not? Its absolutely beautiful
and worth fighting for. What the world does not
need is another buggy open source copy of Windows
We Do Not
Need the FSF or OS Movements Either
Am I saying
in all this that I am against FOSS? No, not as
such. If a person creates something and
he wants to share it, then fine, good for him. For
me to condemn people who want to share would be
wrong. It's their work, let them do
as they wish. What I am against is bullying
people to share or suggesting that not sharing
according to the lights of the GPL is wrong.
accept this then much of the point of the FSF
disappears. There is no point in having an
organisation that preaches sharing to people. If
I want a sermon on the value of sharing I'll go
People Endorse FOSS?
arguments that have been advanced for FOSS as
a generic economic model for
underwriting software are not good. Why then do
people endorse FOSS? I believe the answer is
largely greed. It's nice to have things for free
and it's not nice to be reminded of the
consequences of doing so. When a belief system is
designed to pad out people's comfort zone it
assumes the trappings of a religion. And this is
why the debates on FOSS often turn so nasty;
because to criticise the FOSS model is to take
away people's intellectual candy. And the result
is a tantrum.
We all like
a free lunch and nobody likes to be reminded of
their weaknesses. Or to put it in another way,
people like to be told their weaknesses are not
weaknesses at all, but God-sanctioned
characteristics. In the C19, the white man
hungered for the Indian lands and missionaries
and public speakers justified seizure in the name
of civilisation. In the C21 we are hunger for
software, but only in Stallman and others will we
find someone who will endorse our baser motives.
He tells us it is good to hunger and take, and
the only reason for abstaining is fear of being
caught. So he says.
|Interviewer: Would it be
ethical to steal lines of unfree code
from companies like Microsoft and Oracle
and use them to create a "free"
version of that program?
It would not be unethical, but it would
not really work, since if Oracle ever
found out, it would be able to suppress
the use of that free software. The reason
for my conclusion is that making a
program proprietary is wrong. To liberate
the code, if it is possible, would not be
theft, any more than freeing a slave is
theft (which is what the slave owner
would surely call it).
words theft is OK if you don't get caught. This
is, of course, nonsense. Theft is theft, but a
bad argument is enough for some people when they
are ready to listen to what suits them. Since
consumers radically outnumber developers and
innovators, the combined decibel output of the
FOSS supporters tends to drown out contrary
bring all of this together in a way that makes
these points clear. Note I don't believe
that those religiously inclined to FOSS will pay
any attention to what is said here, but for
others of open mind it seems worthwhile to bullet
point these ideas.
software arises when one or more very good
programmers work closely full time together over
a period of time developing, maintaining and
That's absolutely fundamental.
You need good people working consistently on
one piece of work over a long period of time
and you need to keep them in place. In the
long run you need money to do that.
you give your software away under GPL (free as in
free speech) its very difficult to charge for it
and so it ends up being free as in free beer.
Ditto for FOSS.
Nearly everything FOSS and GPL
is free beer.
if you want to maintain yourself and/or your
team, you need a viable economic model and
FOSS/GPL does not always supply it. Their
standard models are support and advertising.
This only works if your product
is so complex as to require advice and
hand-holding. But to quote what was said
If you produce something that is
highly useful, easy to use, intuitive,
reliable and well documented, then giving it
away as FOSS is commercial suicide because
there is little or no market value for your
services. The market value is in the product
and not in your services. And here is the
irony, because software that is useful, easy
to use, intuitive, reliable and well
documented is precisely the paradigm
of what software should be.
Advertising only works with vast
numbers of viewers.
the economic model for FOSS is not generically
viable it often relies on corporate and taxpayer
money to sustain itself.
We've seen this already in
looking at the history of successful FOSS
projects; seeded with corporate or taxpayer's
lousy quality of FOSS is disguised by pointing to
the few success stories. So much of it is (badly)
copying commercial ideas.
Because the FOSS economic model
is not generically viable, many FOSS projects
founder with buggy and incomplete software.
They are not allowed to spoil the picture.
But even stuff that makes its way onto CD can
be dire. A proper view has to include all
FOSS projects, not just the one that are
convenient for the defence. FOSS people
cannot continue to defend FOSS on the basis
of selective examples. FOSS tends to be
derivative because it cannot finance R&D
like FOSS because it allows them to exploit ideas
Just because Red Hat/IBM think
that FOSS is good for them doesn't mean that
automatically its good for you. Think. IBM
uses FOSS as convenient and discards it when
do not need the Open Source Movement or the FSF.
Sharing is a personal decision.
If someone wants to share then fine. We don't
need movements to tell us to share; this is
religion. The FSF and the like need to
address the economic lacuna in their model
before continuing to press it. Especially
there are no good arguments for forcing
people to share, for online bullying, lying,
blacklisting, intimidation, downright bad
manners or stealing people's code. If the
open source people feel the need to do this
to keep their wagon rolling, its time the
wheels fell off.
every argument that can be mustered, FOSS people
will continue to ignore them.
FOSS is founded on a mixture of
shrewdness, greed and naivete. Shrewdness
from corporate developers who see an
opportunity. Greed from those who desire that
everything shall be free and welcome any
argument to justify greed. Naivete on the
part of those who contribute for nothing and
do not see the darker aspects of the
movement. As long as it panders to the
comfort zone, FOSS and its protagonists will
continue to roll along.
Free Software has poor usability, and how to
Open Source is Not a
I Hate Open Source
Software (funny and scatalogical, but
HeartBleed exposes a
problem with Open Source
OpenBSD struggles to
meet the electricity bill
Open source: Its true
cost and where it's going awry