Is Proprietary Software Broken?

I had no intention of getting involved in the proprietary versus open source versus free software war. But Tom asked an excellent question in response to my article exploring if open source can dethrone Google maps. He asked if I believe the Jimmy Wales quote that I included?

Let’s take a look at the quote again. When talking about the current state of Internet Search, Jimmy Wales said:

It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency.

In my post I didn’t agree or disagree with him. Instead, I used his quote to summarize the free software point of view.

So what do I think? I think his assumptions are correct, but his conclusion is wrong.

Transparency, Freedom, Accountability and Community

Let’s start with the assumptions. Having worked on proprietary software most of my life, I agree that it lacks transparency, freedom and accountability. I disagree however on community.

Customers have very little visibility into proprietary software. They are almost never granted access to the bug database, they are kept in the dark about upcoming features until the very last moment, and they rarely have control over development work unless they’ve paid for it. And even in that case, they often end up with one-off solutions that don’t get integrated back into the main product line.

Customers also lack freedom, in two fundamental ways. First, they can’t change the software because they don’t have the source code or because they’ve signed a license that doesn’t let them modify the source code. Second, any software vendor worth its salt will try its hardest (its good business practice) to lock in its customers. There are lots of ways of doing that, with a favorite one being proprietary data formats.

Next, software vendors have been amazingly successful at avoiding accountability, particularly in light of our litigious society. When was the last time you sued your vendor because their software did not perform as advertised? Right, that’s what I thought.

But I do disagree with the community assumption. There are large and thriving communities around popular proprietary software products that are extremely valuable. If you want to knit-pick, you could point out these communities tend to be more negative then comparable open source or free software communities. You’ll see more complaining and griping, I assume because the participants are at the mercy of their software vendor. However, that’s a minor point and doesn’t take away from the value the communities do provide.

It’s a Question of Value

Now that I’ve agreed with three out of four of Jimmy Wales assumptions do I agree with his conclusion that proprietary software is broken? No, I don’t.

I find it laughable to consider Google’s, Microsoft’s or ESRI’s software broken. In fact, I think the opposite is true. Proprietary software has generated such profound value that it has raised our standard of living by making us richer and our lives better. It plays a huge role in our day-to-day lives. Some of it is obvious, like making it easier to book travel on line using Expedia or socializing with your friends on Facebook. Much of it is hidden, such as the anti-lock brake system in your car, the digital thermostat in your home that saves energy or the software that runs the telephone network so you can call your friends.

But think about the last example for a moment, the proprietary software that runs the telephone network. As wonderful as it is, the open source software that runs the Internet is better. Not only does it provide all the functionality of the older telephone networks, it also enables email, the Web, radio, tv, etc. It simply is more valuable.

And you see the pattern over and over – when there is direct competition between proprietary software and open source software, I believe open source software usually provides greater value. Obviously that’s a controversial statement, and should be backed up by concrete proof as opposed to just my observations. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any thorough, non-biased studies that explore the economic value generated in each model. I assume they must exist, so if you know of one then drop me a comment.

So based on my observations, I’d modify the original quote to read:

It is less valuable for the same reason that proprietary software is always less valuable: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency.

Sadly, it doesn’t have quite the same zing as the original, does it?

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