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Open source software: addressing some misconceptions and stereotypes

Alanna Simpson's picture

While stuck in I-66 traffic one morning, a colleague and I had a vigorous debate on the merits of open-source versus proprietary software. I was left with the realization of how much misinformation still persists about this particular subject.

This discussion prompted me to be more proactive about advocating for the adoption of open-source technology. I believe we are just beginning to explore the possibilities for these tools in reducing poverty and ensuring sustainable development.

Here are some of the points we debated and how they were debunked:

  • “Developing countries already use the proprietary version of ‘X’ software.
    In many cases, government agencies are expending significant funds annually on software licenses that have functionality far and beyond what is actually needed – it’s the classic case of buying a Ferrari to get from A to B when a Fiat would also do. Moreover, because the cost of licenses are so high, it may mean sharing a few licenses across a large number of staff, ultimately reducing productivity. Or, these barriers can result in, as I have personally seen too often, the widespread use of pirated software versions.
  • “There is no technical support or training for open-source software.”
    Often proprietary software is sold with a package of technical support and standard training courses which gives the buyer comfort in the event of an issue. There is an assumption that similar options are not possible if open-source versions are adopted. In reality, there has been a rapid expansion of technology firms that are able to provide highly customized and responsive (often local) support around different open-source tools. So with the savings from avoided license fees, users can set up contracts for ongoing training, technical support and customization of tools/workflow to meet their specific needs.
  • “Open-source software is not as secure as the proprietary equivalent.”
    In an era of malicious and damaging IT attacks, ICT security is a critical concern for public sector institutions. But it is important not to assume that just because software is proprietary, it is somehow more secure than an open-source version. In fact, the opposite may be true – as highlighted here.
  • “Open-source software is not as user-friendly as equivalent proprietary versions.”
    For open-source software in its early stage of development, efforts are typically placed on building out functionality rather than the user interface/user experience. However, with a little bit of time, efforts soon shift to these aspects. Recognizing this barrier, more and more open-source projects are considering the user design from the start, which was our approach for the recently launched ThinkHazard! platform that enables users to easily access information about the disaster risks their projects face. Functionality and cost efficiency do not have to come at the expense of usability and aesthetics.
  • “Open-source software is niche and does not provide a long-term solution.”
    Some of the longest-running and most widely-used software solutions are open source – for example, the Linux operating system and Mozilla Firefox web browserthat many of us use to do our day to day work. Indeed, the latest version of GeoNode has been downloaded 700,000 times - GeoNode an open-source geospatial software initiated by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) in 2010. Also, because open-source software can be easily customized, they provide an opportunity to engage local innovators to create adaptable solutions to specific needs whilst still maintaining connection with longer term and larger scale development.
  • “It’s just software, so why bother with a lesser-known solution?”
    If you have only ever used proprietary software, then you are missing an opportunity to engage with a dedicated and passionate community of developers and users that organically grows around open-source tools (see the recent GeoNode Summit, for example). This community rapidly responds to issues with solutions, bug fixes, and long-term development planning that meets their own needs, but is also flexible and benefits the community of users through pooled funds and coordinated investment.

The needs of users are often complex and contexts can vary dramatically from country to country, and so we need to be always mindful to avoid cookie-cutter approaches or to evangelize open-source versus proprietary solutions. It’s not simply one or the other — but lets encourage others and ourselves to move outside their comfort zone to embrace innovative solutions.

Comments

Submitted by MK Yadava on

Well writ. I congratulate Alanna Simpson for this article. There are whole lot of solutions and technology that are open, and we do not realize, as we do not see them. Firstly, I would like to share that top 500 fastest super computers of the world run GNU/Linux OS or its cousins/ancestors. For example only less than 12% of the all known web servers of the world run on proprietary stack, and Microsoft-IIS share is 11.3%. Apache hogs the limelight by running on 50% of the websites. In terms of Operating System, 65% of the web servers of the world run UNIX/LINUX. I can assure you that your colleague who entered into this argument with you on FOSS, does not realize how much of FOSS he is using even without knowing.

As regards the ease of using software, there is an old saying that GUI (Graphical User Interface) makes easy things easier, while CLI (Command Line Interface) makes tough things easy. For an example, if you we given 100 pdf files each containing 50 pages or more, and were asked to make a new pdf from these by pulling certain pages from each of these files, which user interface is going to make your task easy? Any GUI in the world would pale onions in making your eyes moisten with tears at the formidable task. Use CLi, and a command on CLI can achieve this as soon as you finish entering the command and its parameters.

These days I have come to realize that so called power users in the corporate world and elsewhere who want heavy GUI based software interfaces, are actually using donkeys on the race course! God save their race, and they sing praises of these donkeys day in and day out!! Therefore, it only shows that ignorance is bliss.

FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) [which Mr. Richard M. Stallman, the doyen of free software movement in the world, prefers to call free software, software with 4 freedoms] is the only way to spread knowledge and build knowledge societies. However, most executives of the institutions such as the World Bank, UNDP etc. are seen to use proprietary software in their laptops while on business around the world. If these officials adopt to FOSS, things would be much better. We must practice what we preach.

Long live the creed of Free Software! May the tribe multiply!! May free software rule all the desktops and laptops!!!

Submitted by Richard Teeuw on

Well said Alannah.
Here's a link to a recent journal article on uses of free geoinformatics for disaster management: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030324341500121X
Also, a related article in PLOS One about global data poverty, which includes discussion on how free data and free/Open Source geoinformatic software can help with disaster risk reduction and sustainable development in low-income countries:
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0142076
I hope the articles are of use to folk who are weighing up the merits of Open Source software - agreed, it is often a case of appropriate "horses for courses", but the variety, functionality and processing power in the freeware sector is increasing at a tremendous rate (as is the amount of associated online training material).
Richard Teeuw

Submitted by J. Albert Bowden II on

Great post! Just want to add that leveraging the hive mind ala crowd sourcing is another response to those who think OSS has poor documentation.

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