Open Source – it’s not about free as in beer or speech

I’ve been thinking a bit about open source software, and why I’m so attracted to it. Often when people talk about the thing that makes open source so great, they use the phrase “it’s free as in speech”. Of course it’s also free as in beer, that is, it’s free as in you don’t have to pay for it, and that certainly is an advantage of open source software, but the point that they’re making, in contrast to free as in beer, is that the real value of it is that you are free to do with the software as you choose.

But when I think about what attracts me to open source software, like free as in beer, free as in speech is only an advantage, a nice to have, it’s not the primary attraction.

So firstly, why isn’t free as in beer the primary attraction to me? The answer is it’s about risk. Dijkstra famously stated that we should count lines of code as “lines spent” rather than “lines produced”. Every line of code in your system is a line of code that you must understand and maintain for the life of that system. The more lines of code, the more complexity, the harder the system is to understand, the more expensive it is to maintain.

This doesn’t just apply to the code that you write – it applies to the third party libraries that you’re using. Every library that you use is another layer of code, another part of the system that you have to maintain, and so counts towards the number of lines spent. It may be a commercial library that you’re paying someone else to maintain – but it’s still your responsibility to ensure that it is maintained since it’s your system that the library is running in. When you pay someone to maintain a library for you, you are only delegating that responibility, not transferring it.

So, let’s say there was a library that I wanted to use, and it was free, as in beer, but there was no source code available for it. I could take the binaries, call them my own, use them in my own system, they are free, but I could never get the source code, I had to rely on the maintainer. Would I use such a library? Never. The risk is simply too high, since that library is part of my system, it’s my responsibility to maintain it. But I can’t maintain it myself, since I don’t have the source code. And because I’m not paying the maintainer for it, I can’t delegate the responsibility to them, because they have no obligation to me to fulfil that responsibility. Hence, I cannot use the library since I cannot be held responsibible for it. So, while free as in beer is great, it is not the primary advantage of open source, there are more important things than free as in beer.

So what about free as in speech? An open source library allows me the freedom to maintain and modify it myself, as a last resort I can always fork it. This is an advantage since it means I can always assume the maintenance of that library myself, and that means I can take responsibility for it. But is that the primary advantage? Let’s consider you had a choice of two libraries. One of them was open source, let’s say ASF licensed, but it had no active community around it, the maintainer didn’t accept patches, and only worked on things that he or she was interested in. The other library was commercial, you had to pay for it, and you were restricted in how you could use it, however once you paid for it, you were given full access to source code, and access to an active community of developers, not only within the company that produced the library but also developers from other companies that were using the library and building on it. Which would you go with?

Now I don’t expect everyone to answer the same here, there’s no one right answer, but my answer is the commercial one. Why? Because I think the biggest value in open source is the community. And so an open source project with no community and no opportunity for community involvement is missing the biggest value of open source, which means a non open source project that has commmunity and active community involvement will trump it.

Why is a community so valuable? As I said before, when you decide to use a library in your system, you assume responsibility for maintaining that library, regardless of whether it’s open source or not. When that library comes with an active community with the like minded goal of improving that library, then when you decide to take responsibility for it, you are immediately joined by a community of people who will help you to do that. Ask any open source maintainer, a community member who sees themselves as part of the solution to any problems they have with an open source library is a peer. They are someone who the maintainer wants to work with, and so when you take that responsibility, you get a whole community of people who are wanting to work with you to solve your problems. This is the great thing about open source, and in my opinion, it’s far greater than the freedom to use the library in any way you want.

Now perhaps you might be thinking that the example of a commercial library with an active developer community is contrived – that would never happen, it’s only because of the freedom that open source affords that such communities exist. Well, that’s simply not true, I have worked in such a community before. Atlassian is a company that sells commercial software with commercial licenses, you are not free to do with Atlassian’s software as you please, you may only use it as the license stipulates. But when you do purchase a license, you get full access to their source code, and there is a vibrant plugin development community that you can join, one that is fostered by Atlassian, where knowledge is shared by both outside and Atlassian community members, and people work together to make the entire platform better. This meets all my of requirements of a developer community, and addresses the risk of including an Atlassian product as part of my system.

So if an Atlassian product was the right fit to be part of a system that I was maintaining, I would not hesitate to choose it. The fact that it isn’t free as in speech or beer wouldn’t phase me in the slightlest, I would choose it for the same primary reason that I choose most open source software – that is that I get a whole community of like minded developers working to help me take the responsibility of maintaining my system. And that’s how I know that the primary value of open source to me isn’t that it’s free as in speech, it’s the community that comes with it.

Posted 6 June 2016

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