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Support for open source software is based on several misconceptions

By Tony Healy - posted Wednesday, 13 August 2003


ALP, Democrat and Greens parliamentarians recently announced plans to mandate open source software for government, partly on the grounds it would boost the Australian software industry. I argue that open source would not benefit Australian industry, that open source embodies concepts that conflict with core ideals of socially committed parties and there are some dangerous mythologies associated with open source.

1. Open Source won't further Australian software

Much political advocacy seems to presume there are only two types of software - open source and that provided by Microsoft. It seems not to be aware that there is already extensive software development by Australian companies and individuals, and that this mostly targets, and benefits from, Microsoft platforms. Those companies and people would be harmed, not assisted, by open source.

Open source software is based on software being free, which means developers receive no revenue. Open source advocates dispute this but the fact is that, once the source code is publicly available for a product, it is difficult to charge for software, because other people produce rival programs using that source code, or modify it and pretend it was their own work. In this sense, software is different from all other copyrighted works. I discuss this further in Section 11.

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Any concerted move to open source would kill innovation, because revenue is essential for all serious practitioners in the economy, including software developers. It's worth noting that Linux creator Linus Torvalds created a product worth billions of dollars, yet still has to scrabble for a job. This is not a model we want for Australian software.

2. A couple of distinctions

Open source is a movement that includes three different concepts. First, it advocates using free public software such as Linux, which can be used as a replacement for Windows, and Apache, which is a decent, widely used web server.

Second, it endorses the common practice where technical and scientific research groups share the computer programs they create as part of their disciplines or their work. This occurs in astrophysics, wildlife research and even in business, where users co-operate to develop and refine software they need for their business. Apache, for example, was developed collaboratively by programmers at several Internet companies.

It is the third part that's controversial - the requirement that software developers divulge the valuable programming code for software, which is roughly equivalent to their trade secrets. It's controversial because commercial software typically is much better and more valuable than free software, is useful to the general population rather than technical users, and represents enormous investments of programmer time. By definition, commercial software is useful. If it wasn't, people wouldn't pay for it.

3. Hidden corporate agendas

Open source advocates like to believe they're attacking big business but they're actually pushing an agenda that suits some elements of big business. Competitors to Microsoft stand to gain handsomely from open source, and are actively funding open source PR. Those competitors include foreign outsourcers, who will gain hefty consulting and support fees from any switch to Linux.

They also include computer makers such as IBM, Sun and HP, who can expand the market for computers by making software and software development free or cheap. In this sense, open source is actually very dangerous for Australia because our future depends on having a strong software industry. IBM, Sun and HP are in fact funding the organisation that now employs Linux creator Torvalds, Open Source Development Labs.

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An important part of the mythology behind open source software is that it's cheaper than buying commercial software. However when the German city of Munich recently switched to open source software, the cost was $US 40 million, which was comparable with Microsoft costs. Munich councillors believe they will face reduced long-term costs but I think they underestimate the complexity of software and the way outsourcer companies build revenue.

4. Honourable motivations of political open source advocates

Political advocates of open source have honourable and decent motives. Apart from an interest in helping Australian industry, part of their motivations are a dislike of aggressive corporate sales tactics and an interest in equitable access to modern computing platforms.

One of the early initiators of political adoption of open source, Congressman Villanueva Nuñez of Peru, also speaks eloquently of his motivations in a 2002 letter to Microsoft.

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About the Author

Tony Healy is a research software engineer and also a policy researcher with Aus-Innovate.

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