Thursday, May 26, 2005

Why McVoy is wrong about Open Source

Forbes Magazine posted an article where they summarize Larry McVoy of Bitmover. Larry made the following points:

  • Open Source is unsustainable.

  • Open source can't make enough money to produce the next generation of software

This article will demonstrate why Larry is fundamentally wrong in both these assertions.

Sustainability of Open Source Software

McVoy does have a minor point in that it can be somewhat difficult to begin work on the next generation of an open source program and spread out the cost of development in a reasonable way. Completely rewriting software is a difficult proposal in Open Source software.

However, this does not mean that it cannot be done. One basically has two choices: either one can charge enough for services (including further development services) on the current generation of the software to be able to facilitate the development of the next version or you have to break up your improvements such that they can be done by a large number of non-intrusive patches. In reality most projects rely on a combination of both approaches.

Secondly McVoy seems to feel that the primary market for Open Source in companies is in support services. While Red Hat has certainly shown that such support services can be valuable and profitable, and while many companies have run into trouble doing customized solutions, I still think that custom development is often overlooked as a potentially major source of revenue. Such custom development is difficult to get right-- it requires an eye for features which others can use too, and an ability to write them so that they are generally useful and can be contributed back to the main project for the next release. Also custom development revenue is beneficial because it can allow you to build a truely customercentric project.

Innovation and Open Source

Innovation is a marketing term which has lost most or all of its original meaning. That is not to say that there is no innovative software out there, but most software that is marketed as innovative isn't. Real innovation from a user's perspective doesn't come from having a large number of paid developers working on a difficult problem, as the result will almost certainly be hidden from the user. Instead it comes from a single person saying "Wouldn't it be great if..." And in the world of software, very very few programs continue to develop innovatively beyond the first few versions.

Open source software is no different, but they are more likely to add new innovative features during future versions. This is because one enlists the user (who is more likely to be buying services rather than buying mere software) into this process. The user often has a direct channel to the developers, especially if development services are sold. The user can then be free to say "This would work better for me if... or Wow, I wish it had this feature-- that would revolutionize my life/business/whatever." Indeed the ability for the user to innovate and pay developers for features that they dream up not only pushes the innovation forward in open source software but it also provides a powerful selling point for custom development services.

Larry McVoy is categorically wrong about the economics of open source. He represents a common but myopic view of how money can be made and overlooks a large number of factors which discredit his argument.