Open source… Discrimination?

Fun fact: this post was initially drafted on 16 October, 2013!

If if I have never made it clear before, I love open source software. Some of the best software around is open source: VLC, FFmpeg, Audacity, LibreOffice, CamStudio, Python, Firefox, the list goes on and on. The world of open source is vast and ever-expanding, thanks in part to large proponents such as GitHub, Bitbucket, and popular open source applications. You never know what you will find in this huge world.

Yet I often see almost a form of discrimination (a word you only hear from me once in a blue moon) against this amazing world. Where, when, and how such a notion came to be I do not know, but it is generally as false as old wives tales. Tell me, has your mother’s back ever been broken by you stepping on a crack in the sidewalk?

In this post, I will share three of the most common prejudices I have heard against open source. It is impossible to clearly separate the points as they are all used as evidence and build on each other (somewhat like circular reasoning), but I will do my best to explain it.

  1. It is not trustworthy. In order to understand this point, we need to define what may be considered trustworthy software. Proprietary, commercial like Microsoft Office and Adobe CC, proprietary, free software like iTunes and Adobe Flash Player, and free, open source (but maybe not fully realized as such) like Chrome and Firefox are all considered “trustworthy” software. In this token, if you are recommending a piece of software that is not created by a generally know and trusted developer, that person may be very much inclined to not fully believe your report. After all, they do not know about that developer’s stance on ethical, legal, and moral issues, nor do they know the developer’s history. How do they really know that the software being recommended is safe and not going to harm their computer? This question leads right into my second point:
  2. “It doesn’t have viruses?” “It may be a virus.” “How do you know it doesn’t have a virus!”

    I myself have been asked this question and its various forms so many times myself. As I said, this goes back to the trusted developer issue. Since we do not trust them, how do you know if the program is safe? Since anyone (hackers!) can access it, anyone can add code that will mess up my computer. The answer here is there are things known as repo push rights, pull requests, code reviews, and with well-known software, public scrutiny and examination of the code base that helps guard against malicious, unsafe, or bad code, but good luck explaining this to the average computer user, especially the older generation (no offense or judgement intended).

  3. They think it is super-complicated and confusing. This usually stems from seeing highly technical details and descriptions whenever OSS hits the news. Remember Heartbleed and Superfish? Though the latter has nothing to do with OSS, if an average user came across either of those things (especially the first one) trying to find basic information about how they might be affected, they would instead get a mouthful of technical explanations. Thus from this and experiences, they may conclude that all OSS is technical and only equally technical people can understand/use it. The fault for this could be placed at the developer’s feet for not writing more general, simplified documentation.

Other arguments against open source software include lack of “proper” (read: outsourced to Mars) tech support and negative connotations of overall buggy, incomplete, unprofessional, confusing, and unusable software.

But why do these negative feelings toward (F)OSS exist? I honestly think it goes back to the issue of trust and our tendency to attach quality to large amounts of money spent to create the product. It is probably not made by Microsoft, a trusted industry standard. Apple did not spend $$$ making this the “next big thing”. Since it is free, it is poorly created and will not work at all. It is not a well-known, widely used piece of software. Why should we trust it?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to combat these feelings. Sometimes, the average user does not know that popular software “x” (e.g., Firefox or Chrome) is actually open source. If they know, they might justify not wanting to use it anymore (“No wonder it keeps crashing on me!”) and switch back to some “trusted” software, e.g., Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge. Then perhaps ignorance is the best policy. Chapter 9 in the book More Technology for the Rest of Us is all about FOSS and the perceptions and connotations “open source” brings up. In it, Nancy Courtney suggests when wanting to present an OSS-based solution to completely hide the fact it is, well, open source. According to her reasoning, eliminating the negative trigger helps the client/team/group be more open to the proposal and genuinely focus on the pros/cons.

There is no way for me to easily end this post. While many of these issues may be resolved and disappear over time, I do not have an answer for doing that. I want to leave this post open-ended anyway not only to promote discussion but because it is mainly a compilation of observations and experiences I had.

-Caleb

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One thought on “Open source… Discrimination?

  1. Heartbleed comes from an open source SSL implementation, something the average consumer isn’t going to even recognize. What does Superfish even have to do with OSS? 😛 That was just a massive mess. 😛

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