Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Open-source developers, you are not innovative, you are expensive and not collaborative

So, is it true that open-source developers are not innovative, are expensive and not collaborative? At least that is the impression I get when I read what Joel Selanikio, CEO and co-founder of DataDyne, wrote recently. He surprised me somewhat the other day when he said:

“Regarding open source, in my experience its promise (ie constant innovation, lowered costs, collaboration, etc) has not been met by the reality.” and then he said:
“The only open-source software that I have ever used regularly is the Firefox browser, though I don’t much anymore.”

XKCD: Someone is wrong on the internet

Brilliant comic pane by XKCD (I have a signed print of this one).

To me, these are a pretty surprising statements coming from someone who has based his business on several open-source products. DataDyne builds and operates the EpiSurveyor service, which uses mobile devices to collect data. DataDyne has just under one hundred paying customers for its services [1] and about nine thousand who use their service which is no-cost up to five thousand data uploads per year (i.e. subsidised by their paying customers).

I was surprised, because two core data collection components of the EpiSurveyor system, namely the EpiSurveyor J2ME (Java) app, is built on the framework of the JavaROSA open-source project, and the Android app “is based on the excellent work done in the ODK project at the University of Washington” (wording from DataDyne’s own writing). Not only that, DataDyne’s web site runs WordPress, which is also open-source.

I think anyone who decides to use JavaROSA, ODK and WordPress to help run his business if wouldn’t do this if s/he didn’t think it was innovative, low cost and great collaboration to build his services on these open-source products. I should probably just stop right here, but I find this kind of attitude too interesting to analyse a bit further. There are quite a lot said about open-source software, which I don’t particularly agree with and this is an example of it. I wanted to discuss some of my thoughts on the subject.

Open-source doesn’t offer constant innovation, lowered costs and collaboration?

The biggest open-source projects of them all is the internet itself. (The internet is without doubt also the most complex interconnected “machine” humans have ever created.) It runs on open standards and protocols and is constantly developed. HTML is the code which is used to markup web pages such that they get structure and layout [2]. The HTML standard is a huge collaborative project. No single organisation owns the HTML standard and it is a constant effort to improve it. It is not always clear what is the best way forward and often something good happens which wasn’t “according to plan”, like HTML5. HTML and its use is a highly collaborative environment, all the code is open (for any web page). You can “View->Source” and see how a particular web page has been assembled. This very open way of working has been a critical part of making the web an enormous success. I think that this is innovative and collaborative…

The web propelled the internet into popularity and has made it possible to get access to all the glory (and gore) of the internet, for as low as US$15/month or free at your local library or school. I think there is overwhelming evidence to support the statement that open-source is offering constant innovation, lowering costs and creates collaboration.

“The only open-source software that I have ever used”

A lot of people don’t think they use any open-source software. I am not sure how anyone working in a mobile phone and web based company would get any work done at all these days, without using open-source software. It even escapes many peoples’ attention that large parts of the smartphone operating system Android is open-source.

Even the more secretive company Apple, has release the core of the Apple Safari web browser, WebKit, open source (which was based on KHTML and only released openly after the community applied some pressure on Apple. Thanks to @peppelorum for reminding me). In fact nearly 40% of web traffic comes from WebKit based browsers these days and 60% from all open-source based browsers [3]

It is hard to do anything on the web without using open-source software considering that the majority of the web servers in the world are open-source. The open-source web servers Apache and nginx together account for more than 70% of the world’s web servers. [4]

Joel also said that:

“The only open-source software that I have ever used regularly is the Firefox browser, though I don’t much anymore. I believe that this is because of the poor business models for open source products: if you give your software away, you need to charge for something. For open-source software that either means training and consulting (which means you are not incentivized to reduce the training/consulting requirement for your software) or grant support (in which case you are more focused on grantors than users).”

Poor business models are often brought up in these type of discussions around open-source software A lot of people seem to never have heard about RedHat, a billion dollar business with US$146 million in net income in 2012 and 3,700 employees. Or Canonical (US$30 million/400 employees), or Automattic (who makes WordPress) which has 115 employees and more monthly unique visitors to their web site than Amazon (IMHO a good business model is more than just the dollars). Neither of these companies rely on grants, and “only” training and consulting for their income.

To be fair with Joel, in a blog post, which he links in the discussion, he says, in a footnote, that all this is about: ” ‘user-facing software’: software designed for regular people to use. I am not talking about back-end, programmer-facing software — a field in which open-source has made significant and ongoing and innovative contributions.” Which is a bit like putting your caveat at “the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.” [5]

But he posts all these statements in a discussion, which is about promoting his company vs. some open source software (which I work with and which is for “regular people”) to essentially disparage open-source with these “regular people”.

This attitude makes me a bit sad. And I think that is a shame, as they make products for a good cause.


[1] Based on data from their web site and information in that LinkedIn post. 8965 users (15 Aug 2012, 16.21 CEST) and he says “less than 1% pays for the service”.
[2] There are more components, like CSS, JavaScript and more, but they are largely handled the same was as I describe HTML above.
[3] Chrome (30.06%), Firefox (21.01%), Safari (9.10%), Android (2.57%) are all open-source based and make up 63.28% of all browser usage.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_web_browsers
[4] The web servers Apache (59.39%) and nginx (11.53%) together account for more than two thirds of the world’s web servers (70.92%).
http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2012/08/02/august-2012-web-server-survey.html#more-6291
[5] Extra points, without search engine, for identifying who said that.

Edit: 16 Aug 2012, 16.12 CEST, added piece about KHTML.

Filed under: Open source

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