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Another perspective into the age long open source v/s licensed marketed software debate

Open Source projects are a source of assistance and guidance to many software engineers seeking to find solutions for problems that they come across building their own projects, or looking for ready-made code that can perform certain functions for them without having to write it from scratch. Open source platforms are also used by coders to get feedback on projects that they have already been working on, for testing and critiquing existing work as part of a collaborative effort. “Open Source” is basically a school of thought that promotes free redistribution of a project’s design and implementation.

There is a lot of debate on whether open source project development should be encouraged or not, but the main competition that this kind of software redistribution faces is from licensed software. My particular example refers to the age-long debate between Microsoft and Linux users, but ranges to similar software principles/schools of thought all around the world. There are many pros and cons to both these platforms of software distribution. For a developer, the decision whether to go open source, or go to the market for his particular project is a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, open source collaboration can enable the developer to find and fix bugs using the larger open source community, as opposed to just him/her by themselves. It can allow the developer to reach larger groups of people depending on how unique the product is. Free software is generally accepted and bought by everyone. Again, this can change depending on how large a customer share is commanded by the product. If an extremely large software company (eg. Microsoft), that commands a huge customer base sells the product, it would provide the developer a greater value for his services to sell the product, as opposed to making it open sourced. There are a lot of other benefits for a developer going open sourced such as the benefit of having a large codebase for inspiration and use without the gnawing worries of copyright infringement, better user feedback and so on, as listed on this blogsite (a few of the points listed here, I may or may not completely agree with or see practically happening) –

For a user, it can be a vastly different experience choosing between open sourced software, and established professional software created in a multi-national company and sold for a profit. The benefits of using open sourced software for a user can be as limited as it being free and readily downloadable, and have a codebase of other open source software developers constantly working on improving. Even though there are these benefits, the average customer prefers reputation over convenience (and sometimes quality). Big companies that might be selling a similar product, and have had a history of selling products that work might end up being the safe-haven for the average customer when it comes to buying software. The companies might have an already established, and in some cases better support system in place for handling problems related to the product, and might be better at responding to them on time. The customer might not mind paying big bucks for the assurance that in case something goes wrong, they have someone to fall back on. Another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that most open sourced software (certainly not all) is written by coders highly experienced in it for other coders to use and critique; and eventually for the end user, usually as a pet or philanthropic project. They usually assume that their average user has a basic level of competence when it comes to understand code and their project. Therefore, there is usually little or no documentation related to these products for the user to familiarize themselves with.

It is therefore that the degree of support for open source software and licensed and marketed software varies from person to person, leading to a highly heated debate, valid on both sides almost equally. The best outcome Nash Equilibrium will definitely vary from developers to users, and vary quite a bit in between as well. There is a lot that might go into making a decision for either party. Furthermore, even a slight change or a slight outweighing of either of these affecting features over another, can change the best outcome for the concerned party by far.

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September 2012