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14 December, 2005

Ooh - open source! So what?

It's taken me almost a week to notice it, but the Guardian ran an article last Thursday which questions some of the tenets of faith of the open source movement, particularly the concept of a large user base leading to fewer bugs, or even merely more bug reporting, than in 'traditional' packages.

The example given is OpenOffice, the rival to Microsoft's Office suite (and the article doesn't attempt to deny it is a credible rival). I don't use it myself – I don't use any word processor, etc. at home, and am obliged to use MS Office (only Word, less than monthly) at work – so can't comment on whether OpenOffice is truly representative of typical open source development. My impression, no doubt fed by those wishing to push a specific agenda, is that user involvement in Firefox is working, in a way it allegedly isn't for OpenOffice.

Whatever; it's always good to hear a dissenting view which challenges assumptions. All too often, open source is blindly praised by tech evangelists as inherently 'good' or 'right', as if that's all one needs to know. However, those are essentially empty concepts unless provable, objective benefits back up the fluffy idealism.

I need to know what a package can do for me in a way more suited to my requirements than a competing product. I couldn't care less if the developers of one package can barely contain the warm fuzzy glow of having worked collaboratively. ****ing hippies....

Don't get me wrong: this certainly isn't an attack on open source software, some of which is excellent. It's just that being open source doesn't automatically make it better software; there isn't a causal relationship.


I tend to prefer open source software because IME it means that bugs are more likely to be reported, documented, and fixed. If sometimes means you are sometimes (assuming knowledge) able to fix it yourself, rather than waiting for $FACELESS_CORPORATION to release their next version.

Of course, this often isn't always the case: I've had problems with Mediawiki this week which the developers were reluctant to fix. YMMV.

Posted by cds at December 14, 2005 06:49 PM

No, that's the precise point of the article: that bugs are not more likely to be reported, documented and fixed. That's certainly the idea of open source, and the point the media and evangelists latch onto, but it's something between a myth and propaganda. The theory is rarely actually practiced, and user-intervention simply hasn't happened in the case of OpenOffice, apparently. The opportunity is there, but users don't fix faults themselves, except for a dedicated core group. In practice, far fewer people are working on OpenOffice than MS Office.

As the author said, those with the necessary coding skills and inclination to tackle bugs are a tiny minority; most users just want software to work.

Posted by NRT at December 14, 2005 07:08 PM
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