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The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 3)
« The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 4)The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 2) »

The Open-Source Experience (Pt. 3)

08/20/10 | by Comp615 [mail] | Categories: Web, Technology

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Pros/Cons

In case you haven’t caught on to how open-source software works, we’re in the middle of a lengthy discussion about how it all works. Next stop, pros and cons. Let’s get the biggest pro out of the way. IT’S FREE. Horray. But there are, of course, some downsides too.

With commercial software, support and follow-through must be exemplary in order to maintain your customer base for future releases. However with open-source, because the software is free, the developers have very little incentive to provide technical support. The support for CKEditor was a little lackluster (non-existent), it’s also quite poorly documented. This made it very hard to figure out what I was doing wrong without digging around and debugging the code. A lot of people will opt for commercial software because it’s already been extensively tested and will (usually) function very well out-of-the-box.

CKEditor might be an exception in this regard however, since normally open source projects will document every single function. Why spend all that time writing wikis and APIs? Because the hope is that if the program is well documented, it will be easier for people to alter the software on their own and thus more contributions will come back to the program. Still, support is often the blind leading the blind.

The upside to glitches in open-source software is that they are usually fixed quickly and the software tends to have more releases than its commercial counterparts. In addition, customers usually have the option of three different types of releases. Stable, Beta, and Nightly. Stable is the equivalent of a commercial release. It's supposed to be extremely stable and polished. If, however, you want to have the newest features and bug-fixes sooner, you can opt for a beta version. These versions tend to have some kinks that still need working out, but generally function quite well. Finally, there's nightly. This is basically a copy of the source code (From the SVN, remember?) which is built automatically every night.

Even though nightly builds are supposed to be quite unstable, CKEditor usually has very good nightly packages. This is because all code changes are reviewed before they are committed, thus changes tend to work with 95% certainty as soon as they are in the code base.

Features can be another huge factor in choosing. Again though, it’s a two part problem. While commercial software might have more features initally, it’s usually easier to request new features in open-source software and to have those changes made. (Try asking Microsoft to add 16-bit support to 64-bit OS’s, I dare you).

Here’s the sticky part though. Remember way back when we talked about licensing? Well that means that any part of an open-source program can be reused (Under certain licenses). Thus Microsoft could, in theory, use some part of CKEditor for it’s own nefarious purposes, however the same is not true in reverse. Commercial companies can use these things called patents to exclude anyone else from using the software. Despite the short 10-year lifespan, this is an eternity in computer terms and effectively means that commercial applications can have features that no one else does.

In fact, this problem is most present in video codecs right now. Remember when I said that linux was 100% open-source? Well that is except for one video codec. The problem is that it’s commercial and thus doesn’t have to include its source code. This is also a problem for HTML5 video tags (New way of playing videos in browsers more or less), people cannot decide on a standard codec to use because one is commercial (and a bit better?) but one is open source. Thus, due to asymmetric information…this round goes to commercial. Nevertheless, more and more companies are starting to give back to the open-source community in various ways. So keep an eye on this tussle in the future.

I think now you can see why not everyone is using open-source software. It sometimes isn’t available, especially in niche areas where there wouldn’t be enough developers and sometimes it just doesn’t get the job done as well as commercial products. I still HIGHLY encourage you to give it a try! Take the OpenOffice challenge and try to use the free program for 6 months instead of Microsoft Office. You'll see that OpenOffice is really really good, but probably be so used to Microsoft that it will be hard to use.

Anyways, next time, we’ll get into my involvement and experiences with open-source projects.

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A collection of musings from my time at Yale along with some thoughts about my "Freshman year of life" in San Francisco.

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