Open Source Software – A Paradox

The nuts and bolts of Software – Intellectual Property

The code running in the myriad of computers in the world is called object code .

This is a series of low level commands read sequentially from memory that tell the computer processor what to do. These are in assembly language which is completely unintelligible to humans. (except for maybe a very few nerds who like this stuff!)

Depending on the computer language used, this object code is generated from source code by another program called an interpreter or compiler. This source code is human readable and describes the function of the program. Intellectual property resides in the source code. Large enterprise levels programs may have millions of lines of such code. These are usually proprietary – ie the source code is copyright and secret. The user of the program buys a licence which allows them to use the code for a limited time but most other rights are strictly limited. In particular they must use the original vendor for support including bugfixes and upgrades as the source is not available to anyone else. This lack of alternatives allows the vendor to charge more for support than would otherwise be the case – this situation is termed “Vendor Lockin”.

Data and Intellectual Property

Useful and substantial programs operate on data such as names, addresses, text and measurements. These data are stored in a repository generally called a database. But in the computer world, data can be stored in different ways – for example a number can be binary, integer, decimal, signed or unsigned. All these quantities are handled and stored in different ways. Data can be modelled in different ways with constraints and associations with other data. Databases have structures called schemas which allow them to store and recover data reliably. These models and schemas are also generally proprietary. A vendor may charge a fee to convert data to a format suitable for another database or even regard the customer’s data as proprietary and refuse to do so altogether. The customer is truly “locked in” in this situation and the barriers to change to another program are substantial.

The Open Source Paradox

Yet another software development paradigm is termed “Open Source”. The design process is not necessarily different to those discussed above – rather the difference is in how the development is funded and how the intellectual property created is treated. The software is “Open” – the source code is public and free for anyone to use as they see fit. However, there is one important caveat – software developed from this codebase must also remain “Open”. Much of this software has been developed by volunteers for free, though commercial programmers may also use this model and there is no reason why a commercial entity cannot charge for installing or supporting an Open Source program. But the source code must be publicly available.

Commercial developers argue that an Open Source model does not deliver the resources required in large software developments and the resources needed for ongoing support. They argue that Open Source cannot deliver the quality that commercial offerings can. But is this really true?

If you are browsing the internet you are likely to be using Open Source software. The majority of web servers are based on an Open Source stack – typically LAMP (Linux operating system, Apache webserver, MySQL database and PHP scripting language). Certainly the internet would not function without Open standards such as HTTP. The Linux Desktop now rivals commercial alternatives such as Windows or MacIntosh in functionality and stability.

But how can “free” software be equal to if not better than proprietary software? You get what you pay for, right?

This apparent Paradox can be explained by several factors.

The passion of volunteers – “nerds” will always want to show how clever they are. They may want the functionality of a particular program that is not otherwise available

Corporate memory – the efforts of the “nerds” and others are not lost. The code is available to others to extend and improve. Open Source versioning systems such as SubVersion and GitHub have been developed, which allow tracking of changes and cooperation between developers. GitHub now has more than 50 million users worldwide.

Programmers who have no connection with each other apart from an interest in a particular project can cooperate via these systems and their work is automatically saved and curated. Over time this is powerful. In the proprietary world programmers may work for years on a project, producing high quality software, but if their work does not gain market acceptance it is locked up in a proprietary licence and forgotten.

Development techniques are more suited to “complex” systems engineering. Open Source software is developed incrementally and with many competing solutions. As discussed previously this is likely to produce a better outcome in a complex environment.