David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Will Open Source Software Rule the World?

A few people have pointed me to this discussion about Infoquake on the Asimov’s forums. Some of the forum participants appear to be skeptical about Infoquake because it doesn’t embrace open source software as the end-all, be-all of human existence.

Linux penguin on a throneI could point out that one shouldn’t necessarily take anything one reads in a science fiction novel as an outright prediction. I’ve blogged elsewhere about the impossibility of predicting the future in any meaningful kind of way. As many other people have said, science fiction is largely about the present, and Infoquake isn’t really a serious attempt at predicting what life will be like in the year x. It’s more like looking at the year 2006 through a funhouse mirror in order to see things in a different light.

But enough about the book. The real question is whether open source software will become the dominant (or even only) form of programming in the future. My answer to this question is no, because I don’t think the open source software model has proven itself yet.

A very quick summary of the debate before we get much further:

  • Proprietary software is like a car that’s sold to you with the hood closed and sealed. You want to tinker around under the hood to make your car run faster or smoother? Tough, you can’t. Only authorized mechanics and dealers can get under that hood. No, more than that, only authorized mechanics and dealers are legally allowed under that hood.
  • Open source software, by contrast, is like a car that’s sold with the hood wide open. Complete documentation for every last screw, bolt, and chip is sitting in the glove compartment, and everyone in the world can poke their nose in your engine and see how long it’s been since your last oil change.

The idea with open source software is that, when everyone has access to the complete source code, everyone can pitch in to fix security exploits and coding inefficiencies. You don’t get the kind of security snafus you get with Windows where some independent researcher finds an exploit and everyone has to wait around for Microsoft to fix it. When will the patch be ready? “We’re working on a fix,” say the ‘Softies. “Just keep quiet for a few more months. It’s not that bad. Trust us.”

Open source sounds like a great idea, in theory. But so does socialism. And while I’m not ready to throw in the towel on socialism either, let’s just say that thus far it hasn’t performed as well in the real world as it does in a laboratory setting.

But the open source movement has produced some very good pieces of software, like Mozilla Firefox, the OpenOffice suite, the GAIM instant messaging client, the MySQL database, and the Apache web server. There’s also Linux, of course, an operating system which has become ubiquitous in technical circles and on web servers, even if it hasn’t made much traction on the typical business user’s desktop. This blog itself runs on WordPress, an open source project.

So why am I down on open source’s prospects for the long term? A few reasons:

1. Open source hasn’t proven it can produce better products, just comparable ones. Take Firefox. It’s fast, it’s friendly, it’s flexible, and (the main reason I use it instead of Internet Explorer) it’s extensible.

But is it more stable than Internet Explorer? No, I don’t think so. I can’t remember the last time Internet Explorer 6 crashed on me, much less brought the whole system down, whereas Firefox probably crashes a couple times a week. (In all fairness, I should point out that most of the Firefox crashes are probably due to faulty third-party extensions and plug-ins. Most, but not all.) Firefox also has a number of known memory leaks that can cause it to hog your RAM after a couple hours of continuous usage.

Is it more secure than Internet Explorer? People are going to jump all over me for saying this, but no, I don’t think Firefox can claim that crown either. Firefox’s vaunted security largely comes from the fact that it cuts off a big chunk of functionality by not obeying ActiveX controls that tie in to the Windows operating system.

But what most Firefox partisans fail to tell you is that you’ve always had the ability to turn off ActiveX controls in Internet Explorer through the Security panel. IE’s security settings are, in fact, quite a bit more robust than Firefox’s. Anyone with any level of computer sophistication knows how to secure Internet Explorer against 99% of the security exploits out there — which makes Microsoft’s problem poor usability and implementation, not inherent lack of security.

Let’s also point out vis-a-vis security that Firefox has until now been a relatively small target for the (bad) hackers and virus writers of the world. When Firefox is used six hours a day by 90% of the computer users worldwide, then we’ll see how it fares against the bombardment of crooked hacks and extensions from Eastern Europe.

The reality of the matter is that most open source software is not entirely ready for prime time. It’s buggy, its usability is generally wretched, and the documentation tends to be rather slapdash and hard to follow. In short: pretty much like regular, proprietary software.

2. Software is too cheap to worry about saving money on it. Windows costs $150 or so out of the box; less if you upgrade or buy it pre-installed on a new computer. And it comes with almost everything the general user needs: basic word processing, web browsing, a media player, e-mail. So if I’m a business owner, the question is, why shouldn’t I pay $100 per user for a product with complete user documentation and technical support?

When I pay a company for software, I’ve at least got someone who can (theoretically) take responsibility for their product. I can return my software, I can file a complaint against them in a court of law. And of course I can always just take my business to that company’s competitors.

Now if you’re scoffing at the idea of holding Microsoft legally responsible for software flaws or going to one of their (practically nonexistent) competitors, don’t blame the free market system or the idea of proprietary software. The problem is that Microsoft is a monopoly. If our free market system were functioning properly, Microsoft wouldn’t be able to exercise so much control and dominance over the industry.

3. As software gets more complicated, open source will have a problem keeping up. Just how many people out there are smart enough and qualified enough to fix a problem with a Linux scanner driver? I’m sure there are tens of thousands, and as the populations of India and China come online those numbers will increase even more.

But the software is getting exponentially more complicated every year. Windows XP has some 40 million lines of code in it right now; some versions of Linux have over 300 million. And if you look twenty or thirty years into the future, when your operating system will have built-in natural language processing and seamless synchronization with all your household appliances and who knows what else, it’s going to balloon even more. That 40 million lines will become 500 billion eventually, even if it’s not all controlled by a single monolithic company anymore.

In fact, most people predict that you’re not going to be running big, all-powerful computing behemoths in beige Wintel boxes 50 years from now. You’re going to be running a thousand devices distributed on your phone and your TV and your refrigerator and your electric toothbrush. Each with its own unique software and hardware requirements, complicating things even more. How many people will there be qualified to write software for the Oral-B MolarScrubber 9000 running Java 2045 for Toothbrushes (New Jersey Edition)?

We’ve got limited space here on Earth for people, and only a limited percentage of the population qualified to write software. But with quantum computing on the horizon, there’s nearly unlimited potential for software and no reason that programs won’t get more and more complicated. Do the math: eventually there will be far too much code out there for us to have a population of open source experts on every piece of it. And when it becomes a million times easier to exploit software than to fix it, the first obvious precaution is to lock up access to all those exploits.


All of this might sound like I’m denigrating open source software and advising you to stick with your Wintel boxes running Internet Explorer forever and ever. I’m not. Keep running proprietary software only as long as it continues to work for you and there isn’t a better option out there.

What I am saying is that the jury is still out on whether open source software will work in the long term. I’m willing to be convinced, but I’m skeptical.

And just because I don’t think open source software is going to take over the world doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear entirely. This Pandora’s Box isn’t gonna close anytime soon. I think there will be continue to be certain projects where an open source solution just makes sense. But this idea that open source will drive proprietary software companies out of business? Ain’t gonna happen.

For what it’s worth, I’m rooting for the open source movement. I’d like to live in the kind of society where sharing and cooperation are the rule of the day. But I happen to have a much different view of human nature, and I don’t think such a society is in the cards.

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Kate Elliott on September 26, 2006 at 4:43 pm  Chain link

    Open source sounds like a great idea, in theory. But so does socialism. And while I’m not ready to throw in the towel on socialism either, let’s just say that thus far it hasn’t performed as well in the real world as it does in a laboratory setting.

    Have I mentioned that I love you, Dave? I have a 17 year old idealist going through his Marxist phase, and as much as I like to call myself a pragmatic socialist (which is almost certainly a contradiction in terms), I have to keep reminding him that theory and practice are two different things.

  2. David Louis Edelman on September 26, 2006 at 4:48 pm  Chain link

    Shhh… don’t let China Mieville hear you…

  3. Thom Stanley on September 26, 2006 at 10:11 pm  Chain link

    Communism – on paper, Utopia. In practice – Cold War Russia.

    You’re a genius, Dave. The Socialism comment is dead on. Open source is a novel idea that may or may not catch on entirely. If it does catch on, what we will have in the “final iteration (sp?)” will be a twisted, warped version of the ideas originally set forth. I’m almost willing to put money on it. Almost.

    Just a quick thought: Let’s pretend (ha ha ha) Microsoft went OPEN SOURCE (hey, you’re a sci-fi writer…). Every wanna be hacker will then have access to the original code with no resistance to develop protection-breakers against, etc.

    God help us.

  4. Aaron Griffin on October 2, 2006 at 2:54 pm  Chain link

    Let me note, off the bat, that I am biased. I, myself, am a linux developer, so take what i say with a grain of salt.

    I want to add my responses to the bullet points above:

    1) “Better” is subjective. The reason most OSS projects in the lime-light are “comparable” to existing solutions is that people are scared of vastly new things. You use IE? Here, try framebuffer links (-g)! It’s a great browser that runs in svga mode. It’s technically amazing. Why does no one know about it? Because it’s vastly different and won’t run without a framebuffer (windows gives you one framebuffer, which it already draws on). There’s many instances of this stuff. Many things which are technically superior, but not widely known because the consumer market doesn’t care about “technical details”, they just want to click buttons.

    2) This point is misleading. The common creedo is “free as in speech, not as in beer”. Free software is not about cost. There is no clause anywhere that says you can’t charge money for Open Source software (i.e. Trolltech), it’s just that you have to distribute the source, and some geek will be able to get it for free, regardless. Hell, I’ve donated quite alot of money to open source projects I value, and as such, have “paid” for the just the same.

    3) This statement is, again, misleading. As software gets more complex, layers of abstraction are added. This is the way it has been for the past 30 years, and the way it will continue to go. I know for a fact that right now, USB support and wireless support are vastly superior under linux than windows. Windows doesn’t even support some of the advanced wireless encryption that has been proven much more secure. (WEP is broken and crack-able in around 20 minutes).
    Saying “software is complex and linux can’t keep up” is moot, as if the linux community cannot keep up, there’s no way proprietary companies can keep up either (they have finite human resources).
    With the comparisson of lines-of-code, you forget to mention that that linux source (just the kernel, mind you) supports a huge amoung of architectures, whereas windows only runs on x86 and x86_64, whereas Mac OSX runs on PPC and x86 (now).

  5. David Louis Edelman on October 2, 2006 at 4:55 pm  Chain link

    Good points all, Aaron. Some quick responses to your responses:

    1. True. I think there’s a certain amount of subjectivity to any value judgment like this. My pet theory (though admittedly not one I’ve thought through) is that in the long run open source groups will tend to be “better” at small, niche products while proprietary groups will make better large, mass market products.

    2. To me, the accountability is the key. If something goes wrong with your Red Hat installation, Red Hat can always shrug their shoulders and say “that’s just Linux.” Microsoft and Apple don’t have anyone else to pass the blame to. (Okay, that’s a simplification, but I think still generally true.)

    3. I’ll grant that the statement as I phrased it is somewhat misleading… but I still stand by the point. Although I do have to agree with you that USB and wireless support are pretty pathetic in Windows.

  6. Barry D on December 8, 2006 at 2:13 pm  Chain link

    I agree with your assesment of Open Source David. I’ve developed in both worlds.

    Open source means different things to different people so any interpretation can be valid I guess.

    From an academic perspective, open source can be translated to mean the source code is open for review by anyone. People are free to use it as a learning tool for review, modification, etc… The only thing that matters in this case is the license it has been released under. In the best licenses, you are free to use the source code for whatever you wish – commercial or otherwise.

    From a product perspective, open source can mean something different.

    Users can take advantage of an application which is a free or low cost alternative to commercial applications (not that they are better). In addition, they can rely on the open source community for support and guidance if they are so inclined. Also, developers can use the open source application as the launching point for other applications – allowing them to focus on implementing their specific business requirements without dwelling on the mundane plumbing details. In this case, developers rely on the open source core to implement certain general features which save them the time of having to write the code themselves.

    Having said all this, I completely agree with all the points you’ve made regarding the future of Open Source software. It will play an important part, but it will not play the biggest part in the role of software of the future… it will play aournd the periphery.

  7. nemoforone on March 28, 2007 at 12:47 pm  Chain link

    What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?

  8. Penguicon 5.0 Wrapup (David Louis Edelman’s Blog) on April 23, 2007 at 8:36 am  Chain link

    […] best of all, I got through most of the weekend without having to explain my ambivalent feelings about open source software and the fact that I run Windows Vista on my […]

  9. […] haven’t always been kind to open-source software (read exhibits A and B), but sometimes you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. WordPress — whose […]

  10. haiden on December 3, 2008 at 1:55 am  Chain link

    I never understood how socialism sounded good on paper…
    It has always sounded like a horror story for me.
    Equality is not always a good thing.
    If I can’t have my ambitions and create something that i have complete ownership and control over, then I’d freak.
    Free Market Capitalism can’t produce all powerful corporations unless the government says so (and even then, people can revolt), but then it would cease to be a free market.

  11. Crack fifa 2016 fifa2016crack.blogspot.com on January 14, 2016 at 10:35 am  Chain link

    11. Is your executive protection training accredited by any security association?

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