Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt – dispelling the open source myths

By   |  March 6, 2003

If open-source software is so good, then why isn\’t everyone using it? That\’s one of the most common questions that we encounter when we are speaking to potential enterprise customers about adopting open-source software as part of their corporate IT strategies. The answer is that many people are still fearful of adopting open-source software because of perceptions that are either outdated or that were not true to begin with. I\’ve identified a few of these myths and put them into perspective.

You get what you pay for
Most people attach the value of a commodity to the price that they pay for it. It is hardly surprising, then, that many IT managers are suspicious of \”free\” software and fear that it is of inferior quality to the stuff that they are currently paying for. However, \”open-source\” software is not synonymous with \”shareware\” and there are a number of factors that need to be taken into account when evaluating
open-source software. Although most open-source software can be downloaded for free and distributed with few constraints, many companies have made a business of packaging, enhancing and distributing commercial variants of opens-source tools, applications and operating systems.

These commercial companies charge for their products and services because they are offering much the same guarantees of support and accountability as other software vendors. \”Free\” in this case amounts to free sharing of information between the development community as well as freedom of choice and customisation for the user rather than to the cost of the software.

Another argument sceptics present against open-source is that it is against human nature to for people freely give away their time and intellectual property. But most open-source does not depend only on the good nature of the development community since most people are not investing time and
effort into developing software for purely altruistic reasons. Individuals in the community may be doing it to hone their programming skills and earn recognition as top-class developers. Companies use \”free\” software as a loss leader for lucrative custom development, services and consulting work. In both cases, there is much at stake for the people involved and they are likely to work even harder than the average Microsoft code-jockey to deliver high-quality software.

Nobody controls development of open-source software
This is perhaps the biggest fallacy of all. While it is certainly true that anyone can change an open-source product to meet their needs (a major benefit of open-source, by the way), few people have the right to make changes to official distributions of an open-source product.

Open-source software products are generally tightly controlled by a small group of people who apply rigorous quality checks to official version releases of the products they are responsible for. For example, the Apache Group controls the development of the Apache Web server, while Linus
Torvalds has the final say on Linux kernel development.

There is no formal support structure for most open-source software
Because of the free availability of the source-code for open-source software, the more popular products are supported by thriving communities of developers, commercial end-users and enthusiasts. They provide help and advice using a range of media and methods – telephonic support, mailing
lists, online bulletin boards. For most IT departments that is not enough. Most businesses want a high
level of developer accountability and technical support on the products they use, and it is true that open-source has some way to go before it catches up to the closed-source vendors. But we are seeing fast moves in that direction.

Many of the world\’s largest hardware vendors, independent software vendors (ISVs) and systems integrators have embraced open-source software including the Linux operating system as part of their visions of the future. These include the likes of Dell, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, ACCPAC, IBM and HP – all of whom have an acute understanding of the demands of the enterprises they work with.

In addition, companies that have built sustainable businesses on developing and deploying open-source software have come to the fore in the few years. The best known example is perhaps Red Hat with its popular Linux distribution. Between them, the younger open-source firms and the entrenched
giants of IT have pumped billions of dollars into building skills and infrastructure to support commercial users of open-source software in the past three years.

Open-source is just a fad
Most corporate IT departments are fearful of locking themselves into technologies that don\’t have a long-term future. That is an understandable concern, but one that is misplaced when it comes to open-source software. The momentum behind open-source is only just starting to build, but it already boasts so much support from major IT companies and such a large installed base that it is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. Anyone who has doubts about the long-term viability of open-source software just needs to take a look at the numbers from the major IT market research
houses. Nearly two-thirds of the world\’s Web servers run on the open-source Apache software and Linux continues to grow its market share even as growth of Windows in the server environment stagnates and Unix\’s growth declines.

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