Open source is most important to producers rather than consumers

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (636 Words)

Gartner haven’t exactly been the sharpest tools in the box when it comes to predicting open source trends over the last few years, vastly underestimating it until about 2008, by which time it didn’t exactly take a professional analyst to tell you that it was popular. Still, now they’ve woken up to its potential, occasionally they post something useful. In particular, I liked a recent blog post about how open source is “trending towards customer obscurity” - that is to say that while open source is incredibly important to producers of software, the vast majority of consumers don’t really care how their software is made any more than they care how their car was made.

I support this view, and it’s one I’ve subscribed to for a while (although the somewhat condescending tone of the article is typical Gartner, the point is valid). My own open source software is aimed squarely at developers, where I think it adds value; since the users of my software are themselves making significant development investment in products using it, open source has significant advantages - the openness and participation-friendly nature of the development, the fact that the software can never be taken away from them either by company policy or acquisition, the fact that absolutely nothing is hidden behind any curtains so there aren’t any nasty surprises. When you’re investing your own time building on top of a foundation, there really is no substitute for being able to see all the working parts, should you want or need to.

Developers can be quite a broad church too - enterprises for example often have a need to modify and adapt software and that’s why open source has been very popular there too, even if they’re not actually making products of their own for publication.

But there’s also a vast group of people who are more traditional consumers (personally and in companies) - and they have no reason to care about open source if they’re never going to modify the software. There is a group of people who are philosophically dedicated to using free software (more so than open source) even if they never modify it themselves, but they’re a minority in the grand scheme of things. Most people that use open source do so because they feel it gives them what they need as users. Even personally, I use Linux on my servers not because I’m dedicated to using open source over the alternatives wherever I can (although I probably do have more bias in that direction than the average), but because it does exactly what I want in a server - it’s reliable, unobtrusive, cheap, has low hardware requirements and plenty of good software. Conversely, I don’t use Linux on the desktop much because personally I don’t feel it operates better than the commercial alternatives in that environment. I decide on a case-by-case basis what works best for me, and so do all but the most fanatical of users.

Now, of course open source regularly helps developers make better products (by using mature, reusable and adaptable components), which in the end can result in more users using software made from open source even if they don’t realise it. But the important thing to remember is that open source itself isn’t a marketing bullet point except to developers and the enthusiast minority. Like any gathering of like-minded people who mostly talk to each other, we open source developers / advocates can often forget that our enthusiasms aren’t necessarily shared by the rest of the populace. We have to remember that the end result is everything - and while open source definitely has a positive knock-on effect on product quality, it’s often a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. It’s obvious really, but worth keeping in mind.