Disadvantages of Open Source: A Letter to the Editor

Dmitri Rotow, manifold.net

Regarding your recent GIS Monitor on Open Source...

I think you gave only one side of the story. It's easy to feel happy about open source if one assumes away all of the negatives. Your reporting would have been much more balanced had you presented more significant notes on the disadvantages of using open source. Like almost all things, using open source has its advantages and its disadvantages and whether it makes sense or not to use it has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

There are several disadvantages, some of which are aspects of higher life cycle costs. These vary, of course, depending on which open source product is being discussed. Because of the disadvantages listed below, open source products for the most part have become popular as black box, server-side appliances, not as interactive applications.

If we keep in mind the following is a summary that applies in general to open source products, with the proviso that one can always find a counterexample to a given point, the main disadvantages are:

Restricted choice - In virtually every area of software there are dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of choices for different commercial packages, but rarely are there more than one or two, if any, open source options.

Poor integration with Microsoft - Open source products tend to be created by people who �[do not want to work] � with Microsoft, so as a result their products are poorly integrated with Microsoft products such as Windows, do not use Microsoft features well, and fail to take maximum advantage of the Windows environment.

Poor vertical integration - Open source products tend to be written by people who buy into the "software tools" idea of UNIX whereby one cobbles together an ultimate application by stringing together smaller applications like pearls on a string.

Poor interactive capabilities - I have yet to encounter any open source package with an interactive user interface as good as "average good" interactive packages in Windows. Packages like Adobe PhotoShop, Visual Studio, Microsoft Word and others have GUIs of extraordinary breadth and depth, all accomplished with care and attention to hundreds of thousands of details of the user interaction.

Difficult to use - A subset of the above that should be enumerated explicitly. Open source packages tend to be written by engineers for other engineers and for many of them it is accepted that ordinary function will involve creation of configuration files, writing scripts, or actually editing the source code and recompiling.

Higher cost of installation - Commercial vendors are forced by intense competition to configure their products for easy installation. Open source tends to have much higher installation costs because a much greater degree of expertise usually is required for installation.

Higher cost of operation - Open source products tend to require a much higher degree of technical expertise to operate and maintain, so they end up costing more.

Higher cost of technical support - Open source costs more to support because the software is typically self-supporting.

Lack of capabilities / features - Open software packages tend to have far fewer features and capabilities than commercial equivalents.

Poor customer response - A well-run commercial software company will immediately turn around customer requests for enhancements. With open source, if you don't do it yourself you are at the mercy of a disjoint community of developers.

Lack of innovation / codification of obsolete architectures - The glacially slow pace of development within open source movements and the design by committee, consensus process tends to assure that obsolete architectures get implemented within open source.

Exposure to Intellectual Property theft issues - If you buy an open source product you have no assurance whatsoever that you are not buying intellectual property that has been stolen from its rightful owners, or has been created illegally by people who are violating a nondisclosure contract.

Greater exposure to security problems - As any cryptographer can tell you, once your adversary knows your source code and your mechanism they have a big leg up on compromising your system.

No warranty - If you use open source you are on your own. There is no single company backing the product.

Fraudulent status as 'open' source - If one actually looks at where some of the 'free' open source was developed, one finds that it is not really open source but is the result of an enormous investment of funds, quite often by a poorly-managed public agency. The GIS example would be GRASS, which was developed at immense cost by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The editor, Adena Schutzberg, replies: As for the funding issue, my understanding of open source, per The Open Source Initiative, is that it does not depend on how the software was originally funded. Additionally, I agree that everything presents its advantages and disadvantages. I also found these websites, which note some disadvantages, in addition to those Mr. Rotow listed above. The bottom line on this, and any other purchases and/or choices: Do your homework.

Perceived disadvantages of open source models

Going With Open Source Software
Is it the right choice for your organization?