Yesterday I was given an advance preview of a document for comment. It finished with a paragraph warning the audience that since it was discussing an open source solution it would require more in-house expertise to cope with it. I won’t mention more about the context since while this exasperates me, it’s not the fault of the writer, who is simply under the same illusion as many others on this issue.
Suppose I write a product X, and I make it free software. Suddenly it requires lots of in-house knowledge to deal with it. If on the other hand, I take the exact same product, make it proprietary and slap a one thousand pound price tag on it, now it’s a breeze to install and maintain. <sigh>. I hope when it’s put this way the fallacy is obvious. Yes, some free software is good quality, some is poor quality which is just like every other type of software, but in general, I would argue free software is more likely to be of high quality since it is intrinsically open for peer review and the idea of the gift culture. There is much more reason to care about overall code quality in a free product than in a proprietary one, since the customer can see it! Even if they don’t know much about the code, perceptions of quality can quickly arise from a cursory examination.
The fact that a product is free or open source, simply means you can use in-house expertise to deal with it, not that you have to.
Working in a university, it’s really informative to look at some of the really expensive “gold-standard” software provided at that level. It costs a small fortune, usually with annual fees. Is it slick, beautiful, well documented and easy to set-up? Often these products are appallingly difficult to install and maintain, the companies involved taking hefty consultancy for that as well as for the product. It’s much easier to install many of the free products on the market. Anecdotes I know, but my experience none-the-less.
Writing this has reminded me of comments that Dirk Eddelbuettel alluded to in his blog which again, make it clear that people have completely the wrong end of the stick about this sort of software, thinking it’s not appropriate to real life or mission critical engineering. On the contrary, it is more appropriate. By the way, the software being discussed in that article (the statistics software R) is slick, more powerful than any proprietary alternative I know of, and has superb documentation and supporting books.