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10 Myths About Open Source Software Answered, by Carlo Daffara
Monday, September 24 2007 @ 02:38 AM EDT

Introduction by the author, Carlo Daffara

May I request your input? This article is part of our research in the EU project FLOSSMETRICS, where we are preparing a guide for helping small and medium-sized enterprises on the adoption of free/libre/open source software (FLOSS). As the first version of the guide will be ready soon, I would ask my fellow Groklawers for suggestions on what additional aspects you would like to see in the guide, as the results will be freely published under a CC-attribution-share-alike, allowing also for commercial use. We already have planned chapters on software selection, adoption methodologies (especially for the smaller companies), guidelines for contributing code to FLOSS projects, interaction with public administrations, and an initial selection of 50-60 interesting packages for SMEs. I welcome suggestions on additional topics, and of course criticisms and corrections.

* * *

10 Myths About Open Source Software Answered

~ by Carlo Daffara *

In 1999, Tim O'Reilly, founder of a popular open source-oriented publishing house, gave a keynote speech to an audience of Fortune 500 executives called "Ten Myths about Open Source Software". As those myths are still perceived as true today by some, as shown by recent reports1, and are still perceived as a barrier towards FLOSS adoption, we will try to provide here some pragmatic answers:


Myth #1: It's a Linux-vs-Windows thing.

Recent debates about FLOSS continue to be focused on an all-or-nothing perception; that, for example, to introduce FLOSS in a company, a full software migration is required. This, and the fact that there is limited knowledge of FLOSS projects outside of a very widely known ones (like Linux, Apache, OpenOffice.org), has created the perception that most of FLOSS is designed and directed as a direct competitor of Microsoft's own products. The reality is that there is an enormous number of active projects in practically every field of IT, including business-specific ones like ERP systems, and most of these projects are cross-platform, and can be executed on Microsoft Windows, Apple's OSX (which is itself based on more than 300 open source projects) or Linux. (For an estimate of the size of the FLOSS project panorama, see Estimating the number of active and stable FLOSS projects).

Myth #2: FLOSS is not reliable or supported.

This myth is based on a common perception that FLOSS is exclusively developed by volunteers in a non-coordinated or unstructured way. There are many errors in this view:

  • The volunteer perception: While volunteer contributions are a significant part (and sometimes the majority) of large-scale projects, around 50% of developers have received a financial compensation for working on FLOSS projects, either directly paid to improve the projects or paid to support them. This has been shown in recent studies2 and can be inferred directly by the fact that in the software industry at large, 68% of software products include directly FLOSS-derived code.

  • Paid programmers are better: Even for the percentage of contributions that do come from volunteers, it is commonly perceived that those should be of inferior quality, as there is no financial incentive to produce quality software. This ignores the fact that intrinsic incentives are in many cases more effective than monetary compensation, and the fact that sometimes users are interested in improving the software that they are using3. This second effect, called user-driven innovation, has been shown in past research to be a significant force. For example, around 25% of innovations in fields like software security, printed circuit boards CAD systems, and library software were designed and introduced by advanced users. The same effect provides a fundamental design feedback, as a large project collects both good and bad experiences in using the software (for example, the Ubuntu Linux "Testimonial and Experiences page" that allows for a form of user-driven "steering" of the project and the identification of trouble points.

  • There is no support: Most large scale project do have companies that provide paid-for support, in a way similar to that of proprietary software companies. The availability of the source code and the modification rights gives also the additional advantage that support can be obtained even for projects that are no longer active, in stark difference with proprietary software where no code escrow clause was included in the acquisition contract.

  • FLOSS is inherently unreliable: Many believe that FLOSS is inherently of lesser quality when compared to proprietary software. The reality is that most FLOSS projects are controlled with at least a semi-strict structure, and only very modular projects are inherently "bazaar-style" and allow for large scale internal decoupling. In any case, the impact of FLOSS-style development has been assessed in several research papers, and for example in a software engineering article we found4:
    "The hypothesis that open-source software fosters more creativity is supported by our analysis. The growing rate, or the number of functions added, was greater in the open-source projects than in the closed-source projects. This indicates that the open-source approach may be able to provide more features over time than by using the closed-source approach. Practitioners interested in capturing market share by providing additional features should look to the open-source methodology as a method to achieve this. In terms of defects, our analysis finds that the changing rate or the functions modified as a percentage of the total functions is higher in open-source projects than in closed-source projects. This supports the hypothesis that defects may be found and fixed more quickly in open-source projects than in closed-source projects and may be an added benefit for using the open-source development model."
    This is consistent with results from vendors of software defect identification tools like Reasoning, that found that while the bug density ratio in initial project releases is on par with proprietary developments, it improves rapidly and for some projects defect densities have been found to be significantly lower than that of the average proprietary code. For example, Reasoning found in a study of MySQL:
    "At a defect density of 0.09 defects per KLOC, the version of MySQL we inspected has a defect density that is about six times lower than the average of comparable proprietary projects.”
    This was confirmed by other studies like the reports from Coverity.

The fact that FLOSS is overall reliable can be inferred by surveys like the already mentioned CIO Insight survey, where 79% of respondents answered positively to the question "My company's experience with open source products other than Linux has been so good we plan to expand their use".

Myth #3: Big companies don't use Open Source software.

This is the easiest myth to dispel: Apart from the large IT companies that are actively promoting Open Source software like IBM, HP, Sun, and Oracle, about 86% of Fortune 1000 companies are deploying or testing FLOSS, and a similar measure is found in Europe5. Of those, 35% or more are deploying more than 20% of their systems as FLOSS, and 11% of companies report more than 20% of their applications as being Open Source software. While usage in server-centric and IT infrastructure is more common, around 26% of large companies are mentioning the use of Linux on the desktop, and a much larger percentage are reporting the use of other FLOSS like OpenOffice.org and Firefox on Microsoft Windows desktops. A curious fact that is also evident from other surveys is that many companies and public administrations are not aware of their internal use of FLOSS, sometimes for simple ignorance of the licensing terms and sometimes because the product is offered or embedded in what seems a traditional proprietary offering (for example, many security and networking products use FLOSS internally).

Myth #4: Open Source software is hostile to intellectual property.

There are several aspects to this myth:

  • The GPL license is "viral": The most widely used license does have a specific clause that when a software product that is derived from GPL software code is redistributed, the entire product must be distributed under the same license. This has prompted some to claim that the "viral aspect of the G.P.L. poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it". The reality is that for most scenarios, this clause simply provides a way to prevent appropriation of code without giving back contributions or credit, and this is also one of the reasons why many developers *prefer* the GPL to other licenses. Simple *use* of Open Source software in itself does not require any change to the license of internally developed software, and most companies routinely run proprietary software on top of GPL-licensed code like the Linux kernel.

  • The Free Software community steals the intellectual property of other companies: This is the byproduct mainly of litigation by the SCO Group company that in 2003 claimed that IBM improperly included copyrighted material in the Linux kernel. In the original claim, it was alleged that IBM "put SCO’s confidential and proprietary information into Linux, the free operating system" and that within the kernel several million lines of code were taken from SCO's Unix source code. However, the public was not told where that allegedly infringing code was found, nor were requests from the community for that information answered. Now, four years later, no millions of lines of code have materialized in the litigation, and the court in August of 2007 found that the UNIX and Unixware copyrights SCO claimed to have obtained in 1995 in fact did not transfer to SCO from Novell. Even if the copyrights belonged to SCO, there are less than 300 lines of code at issue in that case in the end, and it's mostly standard interface code that many believe would be found to have no copyright protection no matter who owns it. That's 300 lines of code out of more than 6 million lines of code in the Linux kernel.

    Subsequently, Microsoft issued similar allegations, only regarding patents, with Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer claiming that Linux "uses our patented intellectual property". However, once again, no specificity was provided. (See also Craig Mundie, Microsoft's vice president, speech at New York University's Stern school of Business in 2001, where he said that releasing source code into the public domain is "unhealthy", causes security risks and "as history has shown, while this type of model may have a place, it isn't successful in building a mass market and making powerful, easy-to-use software broadly accessible to consumers". Bill Gates said that the GPL "makes it impossible for a commercial company to use any of that work or build on any of that work", and Steve Ballmer famously said: "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches ... if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source".)

    The reality is that structured FLOSS projects do have a strict patch acceptance policy, and as an example the Eclipse project has a strict due diligence process, that covers external contributions, code rights assignments, code review and license compatibility. The Eclipse foundation also uses automated tools to check for code copying, keyword scanning for words with legal significance and a controlled release review prior to updating the code. Similar processes are in place in other FLOSS projects6

Myth #5: Open source software is all about licenses.

While FLOSS as a definition covers principally the licensing regime, by extension the "openness" of the code introduces the possibility of sharing development efforts among different groups, in a way similar to those of the early user groups of the sixties. In this sense, Eric Raymond introduced in his seminal paper "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" the concept of shared development, contrasting this "bazaar" style where every developer is free to choose on what part of the code to work, in contrast to the "cathedral" or formalized development approach that is rigid and structured.

While the concept took hold quickly, the reality is that collaboratively developed projects tend to be executed in a continuum between cathedral and bazaar. For example, for most projects there is a formal structure (with many sub-projects, more open to external contributions) while other are strictly formal (for example, projects that use FLOSS code for use in a certified environment like avionics or safety-critical systems). The important point raised by Raymond is the fact that both coding and ancillary activities like bug fixing and production of documentation can be shared in a large community, creating in a sense "virtual software houses" that in a voluntary way provide effort and resources. This helps also in the leverage of a large community of expert users, that can contribute back in a significant way, as shown in the articles from Von Hippel.

When such collaboration takes place, it may be not only in the form of source code, as for example7:

"In the year 2000, fifty outside contributors to Open Cascade provided various kinds of assistance: transferring software to other systems (IRIX 64 bits, Alpha OSF), correcting defects (memory leaks…) and translating the tutorial into Spanish, etc. Currently, there are seventy active contributors and the objective is to reach one hundred. These outside contributions are significant. Open Cascade estimates that they represent about 20% of the value of the software."
Open Cascade is a complex and sophisticated toolkit for the creation of 3D CAD/CAM systems.

A similar view has been presented in a presentation by Aaron Seigo at the Akademy KDE conference in 2006, where he presented the areas where volunteers collectively contribute to KDE:

  • Artwork
  • Documentation
  • Human-computer interaction
  • Marketing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Software Development
  • Translation

If overall software suitability to the task is considered, it is clear that non-code contributions are as important as source code; for example, translations, documentation and overall quality are vital for the software to be adopted by end-users worldwide.

This form of collaboration can happen even between competing companies; for example, notices of potential security vulnerabilities are commonly shared among different competing Linux vendors. As an example, Mark Cox of Red Hat (a widely used distribution of Linux) analyzed the results of two years of incident responses, and provided the sources for the information, and found that the largest source of vulnerability disclosure was the group of peer FLOSS distributors.

Myth #6: If I give away my software to the Open Source community, thousands of developers will suddenly start working for me for nothing.

There is no guarantee that simply "dumping" source code on the community will make a FLOSS project appear, and there have been several examples of such behavior to be viewed even negatively, because the community may see this as "garbage dumping" of code. The reality is that for a collaborative community to form, there must be first of all a good communication and interaction strategy and effort in place as a basic requisite. Also, investing in community creation and dissemination efforts does also increase the probability of a bidirectional effort sharing. It is important to mention that surveys like OSSWatch or CIO Insight found a significant proportion of companies and public administrations (between 14% and 25%) contribute back patches or participate actively in FLOSS communities.

Myth #7: Open source software only matters to programmers, since most users never look under the hood anyway.

The fact that most users are not interested in the source code does not imply that having the source code available in itself is useless. Several positive aspects can be identified:

  • The availability of the code allows the end user to pay someone for modifications or ongoing maintenance even if the original FLOSS project disappears or becomes inactive.
  • "Under the hood" there is not only code, but much non-code artifacts that are vital to a project, like translations, documentation, examples and much more. Many users can contribute in such aspects even as non-programmers.
  • For some projects, having the code available allows for a significant cost reduction or dramatically increases the flexibility of the offered solution. For example, in a project called MuleSource (a sophisticated middleware system) it was found that 64% of users perform at least one source code modification.

The important difference with the proprietary world (when sometimes code can be evaluated, but not changed or modified in any way) is that the code is not just a way to reassure buyers in case of bankruptcy of the vendor, but a real and living element. One can conclude that for the non-developing users the availability of source code is a form of "insurance policy", while for advanced users and developers the availability of code allows for deep customization and adaptation.

Myth #8: There is no money to be made on Free Software.

Even many researchers have proclaimed in one way or another that the freely available nature of the code precludes any potential commercial exploitation. For example8: "The GPL effectively prevents profit-making firms from using any of the code since all derivative products must also be distributed under the GPL license". This of course collides with the economic results obtained by companies like HP (that in 2003 reported more than $2.5B in Linux-related revenues), or the $400M revenues reported in 2006 by Red Hat. In an economic analysis by Gosh it is evaluated that:

  • Defined broadly, FLOSS-related services could reach a 32% share of all IT services by 2010, and the FLOSS-related share of the economy could reach 4% of European GDP by 2010.
  • FLOSS directly supports the 29% share of software that is developed in-house in the EU (43% in the U.S.).
  • FLOSS potentially saves industry over 36% in software R&D investment that can result in increased profits or be more usefully spent in further innovation.
  • The notional value of Europe’s investment in FLOSS software today is Euro 22 billion (36 billion in the US) representing 20.5% of total software investment (20% in the US).

This directly translates in a significant market (that is difficult to measure, when -- as most consultants do -- evaluated only through licensing sales in the server market).

There are many potential business models based on FLOSS; for a sample of 80 companies and their approach, see Open Source Business Models: a Taxonomy of Open Source Firms’ business models and Business models in FLOSS-basedcompanies [PDF].

Myth #9: The Open Source movement isn't sustainable, since people will stop developing free software once they see others making lots of money from their efforts.

This is connected to the view of myth #2, the idea that FLOSS is developed by volunteers, and that companies can only profit in a parasitic way from the code that is developed for free. As discussed in that part, the reality is that in most projects companies and volunteers participate in a collaborative and non-competitive way; also, the most widely used license (the GPL) forces companies to reciprocate their efforts by making dissemination of the source code mandatory whenever there is dissemination of code derived from GPL projects.

Myth #10: Open Source is playing catch-up to Microsoft and the commercial world.

The concept of software innovation is really rooted in two different aspects: technical innovation and field innovation. While technical innovation is mostly invisible to the user, "field innovation" (for example a new kind of application) is highly visible, and the perception is widespread that most FLOSS software is more or less a copy of some other desktop-oriented proprietary application.

The reality is that most proprietary software is non-innovative in this aspect too; and that while very few examples of new concepts (like Dan Bricklin's spreadsheet idea) can be found, most applications are matched to the tasks that people perform daily, and as such there is a strong disincentive to innovate away from familiarity. A study of 500 sourceforge projects9 found that from a field innovation point of view, around 12% of the projects sampled were considered innovative, a percentage that is comparable to that of the proprietary software market. As for technical innovativeness, the already cited study by Succi, Paulson and Eberlein found that "The hypothesis that open-source software fosters more creativity is supported by our analysis. The growing rate, or the number of functions added, was greater in the open-source projects than in the closed-source projects. This indicates that the open-source approach may be able to provide more features over time than by using the closed-source approach." So, both from a technical and field point of view, FLOSS is on a par or better than proprietary software.


1 CIO Insight, CIO Insight OSS survey 2007. Evans Data, Open Source Vision report, 2005. Forrester consulting, Open Source Software’s Expanding Role in the Enterprise March 2007. IDC, Open Source in Global Software: Market Impact, Disruption, and Business Models. IDC report, 2006

2 Gosh, et al. Free/Libre/Open Source Software Worldwide impact study: FLOSSWorld. FLOSSWorld project presentation.http://www.flossproject.org/ papers/20051217/flossworld-intro3.pdf

Gosh, et al. Economic impact of FLOSS on innovation and competitiveness of the EU ICT sector. ec.europa.eu/enterprise/ict/policy/ doc/2006-11-20-flossimpact.pdf

3 Von Hippel, E. and G. von Krogh, Open Source Software and the “Private-Collective” Innovation Model: Issues for Organizational Science. Organization Science, 2003. (2): p. 209-223. Von Hippel, E. Democratizing innovation. MIT press, 2005

4 Succi, Paulson, Eberlein. An Empirical Study of Open-Source and Closed-Source Software Products, IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON SOFTWARE ENGINEERING, V.30/4, april 2004

5 Augustin, L. Living with open source: the new rules for IT vendors and consumers. OSBC 2004 conference

6 Rigby P.C., German D.M. A preliminary examination of code review processes in open source projects. University of Victoria technical report, 2006, http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/Rigby2006TR.pdf

7 Jullien N. (ed) New economic models, new software industry economy. RNTL report

8 Hahn, W.R. (editor), Government policy towards open source software. AEI-Brookings, 2002.

9 Klincewicz, K. Innovativeness of open source software projects. Technical report, School of Innovation Management, Tokyo Institute of Technology. 2005


* Since 1999, Carlo Daffara has been the Italian representative to the European Working Group on Libre Software, the first IST-supported working group to deal with Open Source and Free/Libre Software. The group was created at the initiative of the Information Society Directorate General to analyze FOSS, create a set of recommendations, and write a paper to be presented to the Commission.

He coedited with Jesus Gonzale Barahona the resulting white paper [PDF], presented at IST99 in Helsinki. Since 2000, he has been a member of the Internet Society (ISOC) working group on public software as part of the group committee, and contributed to the Open Source part of the article presented by ISOC to UNESCO on global trends for universal access to information resources.

Previous article by Mr. Daffara appearing on Groklaw are Overview: Initial Results of a Large-Scale Migration Project and Guidelines on Migrating to Open Source/Open Data Standards Software.

Copyright © 2007 Carlo Daffara


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