Dear John: Regarding The very real limitations of open source

by Derek Vadala

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Mr. Carroll makes a lot of mistakes in his article The Very Real Limitations of Open Source", posted earlier today over at ZDNet, but perhaps the most ignorant one is his statement that "open source must rely on the willingness of programmers to contribute code without financial compensation". This is most assuredly not the case.

First take the many corporations that help subsidize open source projects by paying programmers to work on open source software. Look at the many developers employed by companies like IBM, SGI, Quantum, and RedHat to name just a few. As open source becomes more pervasive, corporations like the ones I've mentioned will continue to hire open source developers because having them on staff allows these companies to better compete for very lucrative service and support contracts. After all, it's more likely that I'll hire IBM to help my organization migrate to JFS because Steve Best works there.

Or, look at the success of Marty Roesch (Snort) who landed $2 million worth of venture capital last March, in the middle of a declining economy. Marty's company Sourcefire builds on top of his open source project by offering consulting services and developing better management tools. While not every OSS developer can secure that kind of venture capital, that shouldn't stop anyone from following the same model by supplementing OSS projects with consulting and value-added services.

Carroll goes on to say "Proprietary software will always generate more revenue than free, open source software". The problem with this assertion is that it seems to only take revenue from software sales into account. It's been clear for quite some time that open source software uses revenue generated through support and supplemental services to compensate for the fact that the initial purchase is either minimal or at no cost. I'm sure Carroll and others would quickly point out that proprietary software can generate income through both software sales as well as support, and while this is true, that argument doesn't take into account the enormous (often bloated) development costs for proprietary systems and software.

I think the real problem with Carroll's argument is that he bases it not on the real world application and adoption of open source software development by both big business, governments and individuals, but instead on the philosophy of the Free Software Foundation. In essence he ignores the fact that many in the open source community are not in total agreement with the outlook of the FSF, he assumes that the motivations of all open source developers are equal, and he ignores the business models that have been built around open source software.