Open Source vs. Proprietary: Both Models Need Each Other

by Ostatic Staff - Dec. 14, 2010

Benjamin Mako Hill's essay "When Free Software Isn't Better" is generating a lot of discussion on the old topic of open source vs. freeware vs. proprietary software, and reading through some of the arguments about it only makes it clearer that the lines between all these classes of software are blurring. A lot of people are reading Hill's essay as though it is a diatribe against open source--and it does criticize the open source development model from a few angles--but the final takeaway from the essay is that there is no point in trying to pronounce one software development model inherently better than alternative ones.

Hill questions the Open Source Initiative's tenet that "the promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility," arguing that proprietary software and freeware offerings are often better. He writes:

"...any user of an early-stage free software project can explain that free software is not always as convenient, in purely practical terms, as its proprietary competitors. Free software is sometimes low quality. It is sometimes unreliable. It is sometimes inflexible."

 While it is true that some early-stage open source offerings are lower quality offerings than proprietary ones, it's also true that part of the promise of open source software--based on a collaborative development model--is the One Thing Leads to Another promise. Many high-quality open source offerings bear little resemblance to what they were at an "early stage." Consider the various distributions of Hadoop, or the many flavors of Linux. An early stage open source project is often just the first step in a complex process that can create unmatched quality.

Another important aspect of open source software is that it is increasingly being used at the component level in proprietary software offerings. This heavily blurs the lines between open source and proprietary. Mozilla's John Lilly once said that he predicts that 100 percent of software offerings will eventually contain open source components. As that happens, it becomes ludicrous to try to pit proprietary software development against open source development. The two development models will grow and succeed together.

Quite a bit of this isn't actually lost on Hill, but the nature of his essay will inevitably produce a Hatfields vs. McCoys environment involving open source purists squaring off with proprietary mavens. There is no need for such adversarial brinksmanship. In years to come, open source software and proprietary software will move forward in tandem.