The Powerful Advantage of Open Source

Chris Steins's picture
Linux v. MicrosoftThis article, How Linux Could Overthrow Microsoft, in MIT's Technology Review caught me off-guard.

The article is a fascinating overview of the open source and proprietary software models. It appears to be well-researched and written, and makes a compelling case for open source:

...For all its flaws, the open-source model has powerful advantages. The deepest and also most interesting of these advantages is that, to put it grossly, open source takes the bullshit out of software. It severely limits the possibility of proprietary "lock-in"--where users become hostage to the software vendors whose products they buy...

While this may apply to operating system and some popular desktop applications, I wonder how this argument applies to specialized software products. The argument continues:

"Proprietary products cannot be customized by users. Product quality is uneven, in part because outsiders cannot examine source code. If a vendor controls major industry standards, as Microsoft does, it can force customers to upgrade--change to a newer version, and pay more money--almost at will. Furthermore, because lock-in to a proprietary standard is so profitable, imitation is a major threat. Software vendors therefore spend large amounts of money pursuing patents to deter clones and lawsuits by rivals."

I certainly note this in some of the proprietary software we use. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are some software products that are suited for a proprietary model because the software is specialized and doesn't command a broad audience of users who are likely to be interested in developing customized software for the need. I can see that this would also be true for some specialized planning applications. For eaample, I've seen powerful planning and permitting software packages from a wide range of private firms that compete directly with each other. I have a hard time visualizing an open source package that would be able to compete here.

My guess would be that open source products like Linux will give Microsoft a good competitive challenge, and in the end, this will make both the Wintel and "Lintel" platforms stronger.

My $0.02.

Chris Steins is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.


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