I attended the hearing for Oregon HB 2892. There are good arguments on
both sides. I’d really like to see the state use Open Source software
everywhere it makes sense (and it makes sense in many, many places). However,
one clause in the original bill required written justification for choosing a
proprietary package. This adds too much work to the procurement process. The
revised bill href="http://www.oregonlive.com/business/oregonian/index.ssf?/base/business/1050666959318260.xml">wisely
removes this requirement.
Of course, several proprietary software companies and related organizations
oppose the bill, for obvious reasons. Aside from legitimate concerns about
written justification, their testimony was predictable. Some believe that
asking the state to consider open software is an attempt to destroy the
software industry. Others claimed that the cost of supporting open source
software and retraining people to use it far surpassed the cost savings of not
paying licensing fees.
(One fellow claimed, astonishingly, that proprietary software’s big
advantage is that you can buy it outright and use it forever, whereas you could
never own open source software. I wanted to ask him for a single example.)
A far more insidious claim is that, though companies like Red Hat and IBM
provide support for open source software, they have economic compulsions to
distribute lousy software. “Obviously”, the argument goes, “good software
needs no support.” If you’re charging for support, why bother making good
I’ve never understood this argument. Driving back from Salem, I realized
why. It misunderstands the fundamental realities of open source
Take a hypothetical GNU/Linux vendor called Mauve Pants. According to this
argument, Mauve Pants could be distributing buggy and unusuable software,
charging lots of money to file bugs and explain workarounds, never intending to
fix the bugs, improve the documentation, or improve the interface.
In other words, Mauve Pants intends to get rich by writing terrible
That argument conveniently ignores several important points:
- Mauve Pants is not the sole vendor of this software. Anyone can distribute
or sell open source software.
- Mauve Pants is not the sole source of support. Anyone can provide support
for open source software. A competing company called Taupe Pants wouldn’t have
to rely on years of experience as end-users to know the software. They have
access to the source code itself.
- Mauve Pants is probably not the sole developer of this software. Mauve
Pants probably didn’t even start the project. Anyone can fix the bugs
in the software and feed the changes back to the original developer — or clone
or fork the project.
- Mauve Pants is not in control of the data formats used by the software.
Anyone can write a compatible program.
In other words, because there’s no vendor lock-in with open source
software, the argument is entirely without merit. Mauve Pants has to compete
in a free market on their services and support. If they do a poor job, there’s
room for Taupe Pants to do it better.
A proprietary software company has more opportunities for evil. They can
lock customers in with proprietary data formats. They can write terrible
software and drive the competition out of business with exclusivity agreements
and product bundling. They can charge tremendous amounts for support
Perhaps the BSA should consider its own ranks before spreading myths about
open source software.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?