Social contracts

Apr 9, 2008 07:56 · 286 words · 2 minute read

Spotted on Hugh McLeods’s blog - “how does a software company make money, if all software is free?” - an observation about the difference between closed-source aka Microsoft and open-source:

It took me a while to figure this out, but what applies to Open Source, also applies to Microsoft.

When you buy a Microsoft product, you’re not just getting ones and zeros. There’s also a form of “social contract” implicit in the commercial transaction. You gave them money, this entitles you to certain expectations.

A few weeks ago, I met a young developer who worked in an IT department of a large insurance company. I asked him what kind of software did he use. Answer: About 75% Microsoft, 25% Open Source. I asked him why did he not use more Open Source? I thought IT people loved Open Source?

“If something goes wrong with Microsoft, I can phone Microsoft up and have it fixed. With Open Source, I have to rely on the community.”

And the community, as much as we may love it, is unpredictable. It might care about your problem and want to fix it, then again, it may not. Anyone who has ever witnessed something online go “viral”, good or bad, will know what I’m talking about.

Which is only true for a given subsection of the Microsoft user base. If you don’t have access to that level of support - and most organisations below a certain size don’t - then you’re thrown back on the exactly same type of community resources regardless of whether you’re using open or closed source. The difference being that the open-source model provides the visibility of the source code, and the potential for fixed that this presents.