Is Open Source Really a Reliable Method to Create Software?

Is Open Source Really a Reliable Method to Create Software?

In light of a recent white paper written by the second-largest software company in the world, Oracle, for the US Department of Defense (DoD), which spoke of the unreliability and high price of open source software, we thought we would look at the open source debate in depth, and weight out the issue.

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that Oracle accurately proclaims itself to be "one of the biggest proponents and contributors to open source within the industry”. This being said, it’s also not surprising that one of the world’s largest software companies, which makes massive profit off huge up-front license deals for the software it produces, wants to put people off the idea of free software for the masses.

The DoD, perhaps surprisingly to some, uses open source software for much of its mission-critical applications. And it has defended this decision in response to Oracle’s white paper, in an FAQ that answers each point made by Oracle with a counter-argument.

OK...let’s move on to the facts:

What is open source?

Open source technology is exactly what its name implies – a way to create a program where the source isn’t restricted to one creator. Open source is a development model that allows anyone to use a product’s makeup or design and customize it to fit their own desires. This opens the source code and allows it to be edited, changed and used by anyone. Examples of open source software include: Firefox, Apache HTTP Server, PHP and Thunderbird - just to name a popular few.

What are the downfalls of using open sources to create software?

Sure, the idea of open source software sounds great, but is it all it’s cracked up to be? Oracle says that it’s better (for government, anyways) to invest upfront in commercial software, since it’s almost always of superior quality and reliability to open source software.

Open source does not guarantee that an expert is creating, editing or adjusting software. The average consumer is able to edit open source software as there is nothing stopping them from accessing the code and program. This doesn’t guarantee the most efficient or effective software. Open source software doesn’t require editors to identify themselves either. Anonymity can mean there is no one to hold accountable if the software malfunctions, gives users viruses or quits working altogether.

What are the benefits of using the open source method to create software?

The DoD was quick to jump to the defense of open source software, however, and countered that commercial software doesn’t allow the flexibility that open source does, saying “the government typically does not have the right to modify the software, so it often cannot fix serious security problems, add arbitrary improvements, or make the software work on platforms of its choosing.”

With the world and technology changing rapidly with the times – open source software creates a whole new kind of flexibility. Users can easily access software and tweak it to fit their personal or situational needs.

Of course, it’s cheap. Using open source to create a program costs virtually nothing. Companies won’t have to hire an expert to develop, run and manage a software program. During hard economic times, this can save a struggling software company.

Open source software creation also utilizes the powerful wisdom of the crowds, by allowing for mass collaboration between users. This encourages idea generation and also promotes accountability. It can create a sense of community between those using the software.

Which is better: Open source or commercial software?

It entirely depends on one’s needs. It’s easy to understand both sides of the coin in this argument. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to using both open source and commercial software. While Firefox (open source) can fit a user’s needs by being free and full of useful information, a paid search engine (such an academic search engine)  will be a better fit for those looking for specifically scholarly sources. In some cases such as using Microsoft Word (commercial software) or Google Drive - the advantages are dependent upon the user’s needs. Google Drive needs internet access to function, whereas Microsoft Word functions offline. If Microsoft Word is faulty, the customer can call the help center or take their software in to be fixed. With Google Drive, this is not the case.

One simply has to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages and decide whether their needs are more suited to inexpensive, flexible, though potentially unreliable software, or one that’s expensive, rigid, and dependable.