July 15, 2024

Recommended Reading: The Success of Open Source

It’s easy to construct arguments that open source software can’t succeed. Why would people work for free to make something that they could get paid for? Who will do the dirty work? Who will do tech support? How can customers trust a “vendor” that is so diffuse and loosely organized?

And yet, open source has had some important successes. Apache dominates the market for web server software. Linux and its kin are serious players in the server operating system market. Linux is even a factor in the desktop OS market. How can this be reconciled with what we know about economics and sociology?

Many articles and books have been written about this puzzle. To my mind, Steven Weber’s book “The Success of Open Source” is the best. Weber explores the open source puzzle systematically, breaking it down into interesting subquestions and exploring answers. One of the book’s virtues is that it doesn’t claim to have complete answers; but it does present and dissect partial answers and hints. This is a book that could merit a full book club discussion, if people are interested.


  1. Hello, can i use your information on my site?

  2. Taltamir, tell me how you get food, medication, a heated shelter, petrol for your car, for FREE.
    Maybe you live in paradise.
    I don’t.

    Open source gets many students contributors, as they do have time and are sponsored one way or another in most of their living expenses so they don’t care so much about earning big money. I did s/w for fun as a engineering student. Now I have 2 kids, so I have no more time, and believe me, FREE is not economically viable when you have to run a family.

    On trust I agree, it is a different issue.

  3. What is there to puzzle about. Can’t trust a vendor? open source is MORE trustworthy because you can actually LOOK at the source and know what you are getting. Even if you PERSONALLY don’t know how to do it, with an open source project with millions of users, and a large chunk of them programmers, someone will blow the whistle. This is NOT the case with closed source software. I trust open source more.

    As for its economic viability… ITS FREE! Nothing is more economically viable. And why is it free? because people beleive enough in it to donate their time to improve it. One bucket makes a puddle, alot of drops make an ocean.

  4. I think that fundamentally open source software is a sign of the future direction of all software development–for users, by users. Eventually all computer users will be programmers and programming will not be an activity distinct from normal use. Software development libraries and actual applications will lay along a continuum.

    Each application will have an interface that blends predefined and application specific elements with an extension language that can be used to arbitrarily recombine the components of the application at runtime. What we see now is very primitive, but heading in that direction. Many end-user applications today targeted toward high-skill professional users already adopt this design style, e.g. Visual Studio 2003, Maya 3d, Blender 3d, GNU Emacs (heh). (But we can do much better than GNU Emacs).

    (Normal users will be smarter than today’s users, of course. The general population’s IQ is increasing by three points every decade, and the next two decades will probably see brain implants that add extended capabilities to the mind. We already have brain implants today that replace certain basic sensory neuronal circuits.)

  5. Maybe, we should regard open source as something akin to a natural resource: It is produced outside economy, but economy can use it to create a product. Sure, you can use the raw material yourself, but in many circumstances it is far more suitable to use material wrought to suit your needs; especially if you are not familiar with the craft.

  6. Actually, dealing with software support is easier with open software. With closed source vendors, the vendor owns the software. Changing vendors means changing software. With open source software, the software is public. Changing support vendors lets you stay with the same software. You don’t have to do massive retraining, redesign, and reworking.

  7. (trying again, I think my comment got zapped last time..)

    Speak of the devil, Pam Samuelson, Steve Weber and Mitch Kapor are teaching a class (I’m the TA) that gets at a lot of this stuff and hopes to combine economic, social and legal perspectives on open source… here’s a link to the blog where Mitch, Steve and Pam have already posted some of the questions they hope to make progress on during the class: http://groups.sims.berkeley.edu/osdddi/

  8. Peter Mogensen says

    I might be easy to construct the arguments, but most often they reflect lack of knowledge about open source and software development on behalf of those arguing that open source can’t succeed.
    Take the “How can customers trust a “vendor” like OSS”- argument.
    The question is bogus. OSS is not your “vendor”. OSS is a development model with a license which enables this develoment.
    When you go to a vendor, you don’t have to care about how the software was developed. You only have to care about what you get for your money. So choose the vendor and the product you trust, and if that’s developed through open source, then how would that make the product any less worth for you? Has it become less trustworthy to buy Solaris from Sun, after it has been Open Sourced?
    Just because software is closed and proprietary it doesn’t give you any more guarantee of its quality than if the source is open. What matters is the commitment you get from the company you buy it from.

  9. Randy Picker says

    If you are looking for other things to read, Tim Wu and I did Eric Von Hippel’s recent book, Democratizing Innovation, in our seminar last Spring. Students did short reaction papers and I sliced and diced those into powerpoint slides for class discussion. If you are interested, see the slides for classes 6 and 7 at http://picker.uchicago.edu/seminar/syllabus.htm