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The software industry doth not live by myth alone

Medical researches

My neighbor across the street is a medical researcher and pediatric hospitalist. While talking with him yesterday, he mentioned a research report that was recently published that debunks seven myths that most of us have heard...and probably perpetuated. The researchers found that the myths (see below) have been passed down for generations, in some cases, with little questioning of the "evidence" to support them.

  • People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day
  • We use only 10% of our brains
  • Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death
  • Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser
  • Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight
  • Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy
  • Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals.

In every case, robust and multitudinous evidence actually exists to contradict these health myths, yet even doctors continue to propagate them.

It is therefore not very surprising that the software industry has its own myths about open source that it spews irresponsibly, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. It's worth noting a few.

It's harder to monetize open-source software than proprietary software.

I credit Savio of IBM for resurfacing this myth recently. There are a number of problems with this myth. I'll suggest just two. The first is that it assumes the the proprietary software model is somehow entitled to a privileged place. Because it represents how we've done business for the past two or three decades doesn't mean it will persist for the next two or three. Even if it were a more viable model for vendors doesn't mean customers are interested in subsidizing it for much longer. So longing for the good ol' days may be just that.

The second is that it doesn't seem to reflect reality. It just reflects a moment in time and, even then, still obscures the facts. Red Hat doesn't have any problems making money. Neither did JBoss nor does Alfresco. These are only three examples, but there's no reason to believe that they are anomalous. Rather, they are leading indicators of how a large swath of the software industry will do business. Even proprietary web companies like Google are increasingly "giving away" their software/services. The old model of proprietary software is a museum piece. Consolidation will help it to continue, but it's not the future.

Open source is legally problematic and could cause firms to abandon their intellectual property (IP).

This one was called to mind recently by Symantec's hand-wringing that it might actually have to contribute back software when it chooses to leverage open-source software in its own products. Imagine that. A quid pro quo! Gasp!! Who would have thought that open-source licenses would make requirements on users of software just as proprietary licenses do?

More pertinently, open-source licensing is no more opaque than proprietary licensing. Most "confusion" around what is required stems from downstream users who are hoping to get something for nothing. Very few proprietary licenses have been tested in court; very few open-source licenses have been tested in court. It's par for the course that most litigation settles before reaching a court, be it around open source or proprietary software. The difference is that open-source developers tend to be very forgiving.

Open source has interoperability problems.

It's ironic that the proprietary software vendors have foisted their own problems on open source, where they may apply but to a lesser degree. Open source tends to also be open standards. The better open-source projects skew toward a high degree of modularity, making interoperability with other products (proprietary or open source) painless. Try this with proprietary software...if you can get permission, then access to the APIs, then access to documentation to facilitate the integration, etc.

These are a few of my favorite myths about open source. They've been with us for years, in various guises and to varying degrees. They may be comforting for the 20th-century software vendors. But they're myths. They're false. Time to wise up and try using that other 90% of one's brain. ;-)