Open Source - stop complaining about free software

Posted by d.inupakutika on 7 October 2014 - 2:00pm

By Devasena Inupakutika, Software Consultant at the Software Sustainability Institute.

The problem with open source software is not that it is free but that some people think this means they have got something for nothing. As an article by MongoDB vice president Matt Asay pointed out, developers really are spoilt these days​.

Yet there is no such thing as free software. When we call software "free", it means that it respects the user's essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. The source code can be read and modified as much as the author allows. Despite the success of open source software development, most of the general public feels that the software itself is inaccessible to them. This way they abuse the whole idea of open source by not paying back with their development to help projects.

For example, many developers now take the idea of free software for granted. This leads to two big problems. Firstly, since they think all software should be free, so they won’t look for equally free alternatives, of which there are many, when a useful feature goes behind a paywall. They would much rather moan in public and on the Web about how they must now pay for it.

Secondly, they like to complain about not being able to use their open source software straight away. It seems the time honoured art of reading the manual has been lost. Or rather, that users believe their free software should be ready to use without any work on their part. That they don’t need to pay for any of this seems only to engender in them a strong and wrong-headed sense of entitlement.

This misses the point. The open source software movement leads to a great deal of innovation, better coders and many more collaborations. It is, by all accounts, one of the best free lunches ever. Yet it also needs a lot of work and free time on the part of the user. Not everyone has enough of either to meet the ravenous hunger of some developers.

One key mistake made by developers is that they assume that free means no work should be involved. This has already been mentioned above, but open source software needs both feedback and updates from its users. In a sense, the real price of open source software is that it needs its users to improve it over time. Proprietary software - that is, the kind you do pay for - comes with a notion that it should at least meet certain standards. Open source, meanwhile, requires an active engagement from its users in terms of development and feedback. This is the price we pay for open source software.

The other thing to remember about open source software is that its code is publicly available too. This lets developers examine how it was designed and structured. They can then work out how to use it from a coding perspective, as well as make any modifications as they see fit. This is both a boon and an obligation. If you do not get the most from your open source software, it might be because you did not take the time to learn how it works.

In fact, a better way to view open source software is as a DIY project, as Zoho President Raj Sabhlok noted in his recent article. You are given with the tools and parts you need, but you then have to do the assembly and build it yourself. Some DIY projects are a bit like Ikea, and so relatively easy to put together. Others need much more work to get started. Of course, the other thing to remember about DIY, and so open source, is that if it does go wrong, it is usually your fault. In both cases, you didn't read the instructions or go about it in the right way.

However, sometimes open source software lacks full (and accessible) documentation of the kind needed to retain users. One reason for this is that developers choose to focus on features in their software, rather than ensure that they have a solid core. Secondly, they tend to program with themselves as an intended audience, rather than general public. At the same time open source also transfers responsibility to its users.

On the other hand, and like DIY, there is a considerable amount of online support and advice to hand, if you choose to look for it. Likewise, if the tool or software does not work, perhaps you've chosen the wrong one in either case and are trying to do something with it that wasn't intended by its designers. Like trying to saw a door with a hammer, for example.

In summary, then, it is the user who decides how Open Source works, or whether it doesn't.