The Myth of Open Source Support Tactics

by chromatic

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I attended the hearing for Oregon HB 2892. There are good arguments on
both sides. I'd really like to see the state use Open Source software
everywhere it makes sense (and it makes sense in many, many places). However,
one clause in the original bill required written justification for choosing a
proprietary package. This adds too much work to the procurement process. The
revised bill href="">wisely
removes this requirement.

Of course, several proprietary software companies and related organizations
oppose the bill, for obvious reasons. Aside from legitimate concerns about
written justification, their testimony was predictable. Some believe that
asking the state to consider open software is an attempt to destroy the
software industry. Others claimed that the cost of supporting open source
software and retraining people to use it far surpassed the cost savings of not
paying licensing fees.

(One fellow claimed, astonishingly, that proprietary software's big
advantage is that you can buy it outright and use it forever, whereas you could
never own open source software. I wanted to ask him for a single example.)

A far more insidious claim is that, though companies like Red Hat and IBM
provide support for open source software, they have economic compulsions to
distribute lousy software. "Obviously", the argument goes, "good software
needs no support." If you're charging for support, why bother making good

I've never understood this argument. Driving back from Salem, I realized
why. It misunderstands the fundamental realities of open source

Take a hypothetical GNU/Linux vendor called Mauve Pants. According to this
argument, Mauve Pants could be distributing buggy and unusuable software,
charging lots of money to file bugs and explain workarounds, never intending to
fix the bugs, improve the documentation, or improve the interface.

In other words, Mauve Pants intends to get rich by writing terrible

That argument conveniently ignores several important points:

  • Mauve Pants is not the sole vendor of this software. Anyone can distribute
    or sell open source software.

  • Mauve Pants is not the sole source of support. Anyone can provide support
    for open source software. A competing company called Taupe Pants wouldn't have
    to rely on years of experience as end-users to know the software. They have
    access to the source code itself.

  • Mauve Pants is probably not the sole developer of this software. Mauve
    Pants probably didn't even start the project. Anyone can fix the bugs
    in the software and feed the changes back to the original developer -- or clone
    or fork the project.

  • Mauve Pants is not in control of the data formats used by the software.
    Anyone can write a compatible program.

In other words, because there's no vendor lock-in with open source
software, the argument is entirely without merit. Mauve Pants has to compete
in a free market on their services and support. If they do a poor job, there's
room for Taupe Pants to do it better.

A proprietary software company has more opportunities for evil. They can
lock customers in with proprietary data formats. They can write terrible
software and drive the competition out of business with exclusivity agreements
and product bundling. They can charge tremendous amounts for support

Perhaps the BSA should consider its own ranks before spreading myths about
open source software.

That's my opinion. What's yours?


2003-04-18 23:30:52
Is there a future
Is there a future for a company to support Open Source Project
2003-04-19 16:38:21
Smaller commercial players beware?
Many "open source" arguments such as this focus exclusively on large players, in either the commercial or open source world.

It seems to me that the losers are invariably the small commercial players who are trying to create some innovative software product.

If small commercial players are focused on delivering new software (as opposed to services attached to software), they stand to lose from both the negative attitude to commercial players from the more extreme open source fans and also from marketplace bullying from the large commercial vendors, who are able to afford (and justify to their boards) strong arm tactics.

Speaking for myself, a more important issue than open source vs. is that there be an open software market than whether the products be open source or not. That is, competition in all sectors, including the commerical sector, be open and fair. The customer can purchase whatever product they like (not withstanding the OPs implied lock-ins, etc.). Businesses feel nervous about purchasing small vendors software in part because they doubt the on-going nature of the product. This doubt, in turn, is in part due to the bullying nature of the commerical market; the customers perceive that the small player will be bullied out of the market by some larger player.

Small commercial operators need equal access to the marketplace, not based on legal budgets, but on the "product space". (Open source neatly ducks much of this, as the software is "free".) Were this put right (as if it ever would!), I believe much of the open source vs. arguments would fade away as the market would be more focused on product features and less on marketplace dominance. I suspect this would require substantial changes and in any event it would be unlikely to have the support of the large commercial operators. The *public* however should in their own interests support it.

One of the big problems that I have with open source vs. arguments is that they frequently imply that small players should only be doing support - as is this post did (albiet only in a small way!). This effectively implies that the large commercial players have a "right to rule" the commercial product sphere. This argument is very damaging to small companies and the development of innovative products.

Finally, commercial players *do* add value in the form of consistent on-going development, support, quality assurance, testing, documentation, knowledge in that specialist domain, etc., etc. Open source projects are frequently quite erratic in these aspects. Its frustrating to see so many open source projects act as if once a working program is there "its ready for use".

2003-04-20 20:18:07
Good read, even to a beginner.

Problem. This beginner doesn't know what BSA is or their role/capability.

2003-04-21 07:27:29
no lock in?
for eg will RedHat provide support for Debian distribution?
2003-04-23 10:55:15
> Problem. This beginner doesn't know what BSA is
> or their role/capability.

"The Business Software Alliance is the foremost organization dedicated to promoting a safe and legal online world. BSA is the voice of the world's commercial software industry before governments and in the international marketplace. . . . BSA members include Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Avid, Bentley Systems, Borland, CNC Software/Mastercam, Internet Security Systems, Macromedia, Microsoft, Network Associates and Symantec." (

2003-04-24 06:24:59
no lock in?
Yes, if there was an economic advantage for them to do so. The question isn't "Is Redhat doing this now", the situation is "They can do this if they want, it's a free (market|country|source)". There's nothing stopping Redhat (or anyone else) selling support for Debian installs, and that's an advantage of open source.

Try selling support (including fixing underlying source code bugs) for a closed product. Only the company or affiliated vendors can do that, and poorly at that (usually). Less choice == !good