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A Cold War

01 Feb 2010

 Open source vs proprietary software: is the conflict really necessary? A few years ago ‘FLOSS’ was something you did to your teeth. However it’s now the catchphrase of a software movement – Free/Libre/Open Source Software. And, the fact that we have ‘movements’, as such, is somewhat curious to the casual observer.The movement has ruffled feathers, so the big question is: why all the fuss? Surely the concept of free-to-use and free-to-modify software is simply a model, so why does it provoke so much passion?As an example, a certain government agency recently opted almost completely for open source systems, including on the desktop, yet it didn’t want to say why, to prevent unwanted attention and controversy. This I find particularly interesting: that the choice of software itself might provoke unwanted attention is indicative of the current state of affairs.The passion and resentment on both sides of the great divide is unparalleled. The blind vigour in the clash between the FLOSS and proprietary worlds is comparable to religious battles of old. The most zealous of advocates on both sides can be so firmly entrenched as to make it difficult to argue against such a religious comparison, the result often unnecessarily and significantly damaging the mainstream view of FLOSS in particular; a fact often lost on the individuals concerned.So why is there such a clash between these two worlds? The answer is that there’s a war on; a war that’s been raging for some time and like most long-term wars, one in which both sides have probably forgotten why they’re fighting and now simply survive on their dislike of the other party.The FLOSS crowd will say it’s about freedom and money: no company should be able to profit to the extent that some corporations have, and the cost and lock-in of the big vendors stifles the growth and innovation of individuals and companies. The proprietary crowd will say it’s about livelihood: if nobody gets paid, nobody earns. If nobody earns, nobody can afford to continue to create software (ironically a great many FLOSS contributors are employed by commercial software companies and contribute in their spare time or in time set aside and paid for by their employer). So at the risk of alienating one group or other (and probably alienating both in the process), which software model is better for the user?Both are right to a lesser degree of course – the truth is somewhere in the middle. And as always, both approaches have their pros and cons. The up-front licensing cost of a FLOSS solution on the desktop is often lower; however there’s far more mainstream support available for proprietary software, as more people use it. And some would argue that more options equal lower, longer-term cost and greater certainty.Ideological reasons aside, there’s frankly no great benefit for the majority of users in being able to modify an application themselves – most don’t have the skills, knowledge or inclination to do so. Most motorists don’t need or want to be able to pop the bonnet and rewire their starter motor.And this, of course, is the crux of the issue. FLOSS advocates argue that if a user wants to pop the bonnet and have a play, they should be able to without restriction – just like with a car or any other physical-world equivalent.So what’s the answer? In my opinion, it’s simple: FLOSS, open source, proprietary, etc. are simply licensing models. The best solution is the one that adequately solves the problem of the client, nothing more and nothing less. No professional should ever lose sight of this or allow ideology to prevent them from providing the best solution: proprietary, open source or otherwise.