Open-source software has already proven its potential for improving accessibility, connecting developers together, and reducing costs. Proponents of open source have a long list of benefits they can use to persuade you, and even the naysayers are willing to acknowledge the advantages.
But is open source destined to be our future? Can we even envision an era in which open source software is the typical standard?
A Briefer on Open-Source Software and its Inevitable Future
Let’s start with a briefer on open-source software. Open source is, for the most part, true to its namesake. An engineer or a team of engineers develops an open-source tool or resource that intend to make it free and publicly accessible.
Individuals or companies can use the software for any purpose. Additionally, a team of contributors can voluntarily optimize the software to make it better, make their own versions of the software, or create new apps with that software as the basis.
Anything can be open source, from project management platforms to conversational AI. As long as it’s declared to be open source, complete projects and swaths of code can be readily exchanged and used.
The Advantages of Open Source
There are many advantages of open source, including:
- Lower costs for users. Open source is totally free for users, which is the most notable and obvious advantage. Your company can pay $100 per month per user for a CRM platform created by a major brand, or you can use a very similar open-source platform entirely for free. Which do you prefer? Cost is only one variable, but it’s a significant one – and if you can save hundreds to thousands of dollars by switching to an open-source version of your most essential platforms, you’ll be motivated to do so.
- Nearly unlimited potential. It has almost limitless potential because open source is the subject of constant attention, scrutiny, and ongoing tinkering. Any developer, including the project leads, corporate teams, and amateur solo developers, can tweak the backend, redesign elements, or even rebuild the entire platform from scratch. As a result, any platform could eventually transform into something much, much better.
- Mutual transparency. Open source provides mutual transparency. The code for the software is readily available and can be reviewed by anyone at any time. New improvements and changes can be similarly reviewed (if the contributors are willing to share them). This open transparency makes it easy to find flaws, bugs, and other issues – and can give you the certainty that the product you’re using is everything you need it to be.
- Community support. Open-source projects also tend to attract significant community support. Popular open source apps typically have entire communities of passionate developers who want to keep the project alive and continue improving it at the same time. If you run into an issue or if you have a question about how the app works or a potential problem you’ve found, you can likely post on a forum and get an answer from an experienced developer who has worked on this in the past.
- Ongoing advancement. Because there’s always a thriving community of people contributing to the project, open-source apps often experience continuing advancement. The bugs are fixed, issues are resolved, and the core functionality grows to become more robust. If you’re using the software and updating it as necessary, you’ll get to enjoy all the new benefits as they become available.
- Decentralization. Decentralization is another critical advantage of open source. Instead of being contingent on the direction of a single leader or even a single team, the community shapes how the app develops. When a large pool of individuals work on a project, it’s great for creative idea generation and genuine innovation.
The Disadvantages of Open Source
However, there are also some disadvantages:
- Lack of direction. Open source projects are often dreamt up as a side project, then handed over to an entire distributed team of coders and visionaries. The decentralization of this type of project can be an advantage, but it can also be a weakness. If the project doesn’t have much direction or if it suffers from lousy leadership, it could quickly fizzle out.
- Time requirements. If you want to use an open-source platform for your business, you’re going to have to spend some time getting it up to speed. That might mean breaking it open to see how it works, redesigning it to fit your needs, or just learning it inside and out. In any case, it often takes more time than simply buying an existing platform.
- Limited profitability for creators. Software developers are motivated by many things, but money is one of the most common motivations. Unfortunately, creating open-source software is never profitable (unless you figure in career opportunities). This makes it difficult to persuade new developers to start their own open-source projects.
- Potential security vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, some open-source software could also pose security liabilities. The transparent nature of the backend code allows people to discover security flaws and patch them. Still, if a cybercriminal discovers those flaws first, they could easily take advantage of a large population of users. The threat is exacerbated because open-source software is often implemented with many dependencies, leading to a complex and easily exploited network.
- No accountability. Nobody in charge means nobody is accountable for the performance of the software. If you pay a subscription for a piece of software and it stops working correctly, you can contact customer service or even escalate the situation to take legal action. However, if your open-source software stops working, you have nothing (other than some community support).
- No guaranteed support. If you do end up with an issue with the open-source software, your best path forward is to contact the community and ask for help. Unfortunately, these community members are not required to help you – and you never get may never get answers to your most pressing questions.
What’s Stopping Open Source from Taking Off?
If the balance of open source’s advantages and disadvantages made it universally beneficial, we would expect it to have an even wider reach than it currently has.
So what’s stopping open-source from taking off?
These are some of the influential factors:
- Profit incentives. One of the obvious limiting factors here is the profitability potential of open-source software. When companies and individuals are incentivized to create software that generates revenue, open-source immediately becomes a much lower priority. People are drawn to the work that pays the most.
- Voluntary nature. Open-source software is always a totally voluntary project. If no one wants to create new apps, or if no one wants to improve the existing apps, nothing will get done. The whole system relies on intrinsic motivation – and the altruism of participants.
- Talent distribution. The most talented developers in the world often want to work with big teams at prestigious firms or make lots of money. Unfortunately, this creates a talent shortage for open-source developers.
- Persistent attitudes. Even though the advantages are impressive, some people have negative associations with open-source software. They may feel like it’s cheap and therefore useless, or they may feel like all open source platforms are merely the product of amateur developers. Anyone familiar with open source knows that these attitudes are irrational and ungrounded, but it’s still challenging to launch a cultural change that allows them to evolve.
Despite some of these limiting factors, open-source remains a popular approach – and it will likely become even more popular in the near future. We may even see it grow to eclipse the dominant for-profit models of other software companies.
However, because of its limitations and because of persistent negative connotations of the software, it may be decades before it’s a dominant form of programming – if it ever gets there.
Image Credi: Hebert Santos; Pexels; Thank you!