Open Source Software vs. Commercial Software – will community driven software really overtake money-driven software?

My techie friends take pride in displaying the latest addition to their list of programs that run on their Linux installation.  ‘Open source is the way of the future’ they tell me, ‘Microsoft’s days of monopoly are numbered’. I smile. No I am not employed by the big M at Redmond, nor do I foresee Mr. Gates making me a subject of his charitable contributions. But the fact remains that even when my tech friends are busy gloating over their newest open-source acquisition, they still have a multi-boot system with Windows as the other OS.

            I agree that Open Source is a more level playing field where everyone is free to make their important contributions to technology without being hindered by the time consuming processes of large organizations. Most of the new path-breaking technologies in the market were developed in an open source environment. Yet, in that environment they were only restricted to being used by the techies and geeks of the world. The world only came to hear of it once this concept was taken out of its open source womb and placed, kicking and screaming, for sale in the commercial market.

            Everyone loves a free ride, but how many of us would take up such an offer? The uncertainty of where you will end up is the biggest problem with open source. When you pay for a piece of commercial software, you know that it has undergone rigorous testing to eliminate any bugs, before it is brought out. Even if something goes wrong, there are means and methods for you to get a refund on your investment. Take the example of Windows Vista. Microsoft may limit its financial liability for Vista Pre-Release Candidate 1 testers to five US Dollars, but at least that is a sign that it acknowledges that it may be held financially responsible in the event of a malfunction. Who will provide this sort of a guarantee in the open source market?

            The other issue is that of ease-of-use. I may whole-heartedly support the development of open source software, but when my boss is pressurizing me with deadlines, and the IT department is pressurizing me to calculate and submit my returns, I just want software that works for me with minimum effort. It is simply not worth the effort. Commercial software provides its manufacturers with monetary returns, so they are interested in making sure that as many people as possible buy and use it. To this end, they make sure that their software runs on all the popular platforms and compares favourably with the best in the market. Open source developers are not faced with these constraints. This allows them to chart esoteric new paths but they couldn’t be bothered if not a single person bought it, because they’re not selling in the first place.

            New advancements in software will continue to take place in the open source segment because of lesser restrictions. However, once the necessary technology has been developed, these products will have to be tested and distributed as commercial software in order for them to truly reach a large audience. Open source simply does not provide an individual with the necessary resources for marketing a product, no matter how ground-breaking the product may be.  

            Open source software has a niche market. It is very popular in college campuses and as of now a lot of hardware vendors are also offering open source operating systems bundled with their computers to bring costs down. I recently bought a Compaq Presario and it came bundled with FreeDOS. I was delighted at the savings I had made. But searching for compatible drivers for all my equipment and my fancy graphics card proved to be a nightmare. Even HP did not provide driver support for the FreeDOS that they bundled with the system. At the end of the day I ended up shelling out money for Windows XP Professional.

            My techie friends give me mean looks. ‘Traitor’, they hiss under their breath. Well guys I love fooling around with strange new open source software as much as the other bloke. When I have the time, I indulge myself in trying out the latest open source OS variant on the net, and sometimes end up crashing my computer. It is an exhilarating experience. However, when I am rebooting and re-installing an OS, it is usually the same old, boring, commercial Windows.