Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The ultimate reason to use Firefox (and open source)

Over the last few months I've felt a growing loyalty in my bosom for Firefox and other open source software - software which, in a miraculous display of goodwill and cooperation, is actually written by masses of volunteers rather than the staff of a company. But I couldn't figure out why I was so newly in love with open source. Yesterday I was trying out OpenOffice (a free version of Microsoft Office) and that made me think about it more: why am I so in love with OpenSource?

There are a lot of nice things about Firefox, OpenOffice, and other open sources products. They are free!; they are often safer to use, since the army of volunteers fixes bugs quickly; and they tend to be easier to modify and contribute to (as in the case of Firefox extensions).

But these reasons aren't the ultimate reason to use Firefox and open source products. The ultimate reason is that "normal" software products will usually either screw you or dump you at some point in your relationship. A company that makes money always has to reevaluate its strategy in terms of profitability. If Microsoft Word isn't profitable enough (not a problem at all at the moment), Microsoft needs to make it more expensive or discontinue it -- either screw or dump their customers.

Open source projects, will be truly loyal to you in a way that companies just won't be over the long run.

You might cite traditional economics: "Isn't Word worth just as much as Microsoft charges for it?" No, because the market for word processing isn't perfectly competitive (or very competitive at all, for that matter). Microsoft has created a situation where customers are "locked in." So you're not quite paying the exact value for Word; you're paying extra for the fact that Microsoft has got a corner on the market, taking action to edge other companies out in part, and partly just because the nature of a Word processing encourages (but doesn't require) that everyone use the same software, leading to a situation depleted of options.

You can think about it as a question of value creation vs. value capture, my previous post. Companies that need to be profitable need to capture value (that's the revenue part). As a result, they won't create value in situations where (1) the value can't be captured by anyone or (2) it's too difficult for them to defend the value they create. Each of these situations is a missed opportunity for technology users around the world to be happier and better off.

Open source projects, on the other hand, aren't so concerned with capturing value. They just create value. Many open source products are open for you to modify and redistribute! That allowance is about the most extreme manifestation you can get of an organization that wants to create value without worrying too much about how it can profit by its creation. It's made possible by the fact that individual contributors to these projects are intrinsically motivated, rather than being motivated by money. (They may be motivated by money in their life, but not in their contributions to these projects.)

In other words, by having much lower demands of the value they capture, open source projects create more value (for you).

Viewed through a value creation / value capture lens, open source projects are virtually guaranteed to be better to you in the long run. Why? The nature of technology development is that new technology depreciates over time. In essence, the "pie" of a particular market shrinks over the long term (just like the cost of technology). At that point, companies that need a piece of the pie are going to start being greedier about how you split up the pie, or else they will move on to another pie. All in all, open source providers are your better friend.

The main exception to my hypothesis about the superiority of open source is that, in the case of big projects, they can be a bit amateurish at first and hence you don't want to adopt them too early. Open source operating systems -- alternatives to Windows such as Linux and Unix -- remain fairly hard to use, despite having been around for a while. Nevertheless, history seems to indicate that one an open source project gets up to a professional, mass-market level of quality, it will stay there (and push the product to a higher level). A few years ago, I tried open source word processors and didn't think they were good enough. But now I'm optimistic. OpenOffice crashed the very first time I tried to open a document, but it's worked perfectly so far since then. I actually like it a bit better than Word, though frankly it's very similar in its features.