Open Source: Constructive or Harmful to Competition?
When we look at the success of businesses and projects – both from the standpoint of those with interest in a business and the consumers that buy and use their products – competition is one of the most important components in any market. Working in retail, competition is what forces me to offer my prospective customers fair prices because I know that if I don’t I’ll lose business to my competitor down the street. But competition between businesses in the same industry doesn’t stop there. Competition is what allowed the small business I work for to get off the ground instead of fall victim to monopolies within the industry. And perhaps most importantly competition is what drives innovation, forcing engineers and product developers to not only produce more feature-rich goods, but products that are priced reasonably for consumers as well.
Even as much as I like competition, though, I realize that there are always going to be situations where working together produces better end results for everyone involved because if people are willing to work together instead of against one another the combined resources and efforts can go so much further. It’s for this reason that I have always liked the concept of open source software. After all, when people with different skill sets and experiences make their work available for others to use and improve upon their work becomes exponentially more valuable. Not only do others get to make use of the work of others, but through sub-projects, branches, and development groups what would have otherwise been nothing can become something invaluable to millions of users.
All that said, there’s part of me that has to question whether open source projects fueled by community-based peer review and collaboration outweigh the benefit of competition that we typically see in proprietary and closed-source offerings. Don’t get me wrong here; I see both sides and could easily make a handful of arguments either way. But really, what is better?
From the point of view of a consumer, my initial siding would probably have to be with closed-source and proprietary offerings. You see, when a product is developed and marketed as a closed-source offering from a company the success of the product, future products, and even the company that produces it relies entirely on the reputation that said product gets with consumers. If a company develops complete and total garbage the chances of them being able to stay afloat is minimal at best, and the real “winner” would be that company’s competitor; another company that offers a similar piece of software. Knowing that, most reputable companies that produce solid software spend a great deal of time implementing features and fool-proofing it before they’re comfortable enough to sell it to the public because the reality is that one tainted release or product can forever tarnish a company’s reputation. Look at Windows Vista, for example. To this day Microsoft still gets ridiculed for the less than perfect operating system from 2007.
But of course closed source development isn’t the only way to produce electronic software. The concept of “open source” has been around since the beginning of modern computing and is still a value that a great many people hold tightly too each and every day. Open source allows for people to work together to produce the best software that they possibly can; all without worrying about having to “one-up” their competition. In all honesty, the collaboration that we see with open source is truly phenomenal. Look at popular open source products (various Linux distributions, software like OpenOffice/LibreOffice, etc.) and you will see that if there’s anything more powerful than the software itself it’s the community that stands behind to maintain and improve it.
When everyone comes together without a personal interest or ulterior motives great things can and do happen. And that’s exactly what open source is. I mean, open source is literally like sitting at a global table with users from around the world throwing ideas, suggestions, and constructive criticism out into the open. Anyone who has ever sat with a few friends on a weekend and shot off crazy ideas knows exactly what I’m talking about and can only imagine what can result from an exponentially larger collaborative effort consisting solely of individuals with nothing but the best intentions for a project.
So what’s the answer? What is better? Open or closed source? As much as I hate to admit it, this really is somewhat of a trick question. Both open and closed software is developed by highly motivated groups of people. Sure, the motive in closed-source development is typically focused entirely around profit and expansion, but that’s not to say that the open source community as a whole isn’t just as motivated by their desire for collaborative development and reliable software.
Just look. Microsoft Office and OpenOffice/LibreOffice are both extremely successful. Both are actively maintained and both are widely used. The difference? One product (Microsoft Office) is able to see active development because of the stream of revenue that the developing company (Microsoft) brings in, while the other is held together by the global resources of hundreds upon hundreds of contributors. So really, neither open or closed software is always going to be the best, and in many cases both can co-exist rather well.