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Some errors in The Economist

Friday, March 17, 2006

Some errors in The Economist

[Translation of Algunos errores de The Economist by Ricardo Galli published on 17-Mar-2006.]

Comments on the article, Open but not as usual, published in the Economist on 16th March 2006.

Generally speaking this is a very good article which attempts to make an objective analysis of both types of software “production”. In my opinion, I feel that the balance tips towards free and open source software.

However, there are some phrases in the article that I consider to be erroneous or at least incomplete.

However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be.

Neither is it clear whether the proprietary software market will be innovative or sustainable. See DRM, software patents and the daily scandals occurring in the USA.

For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property.

There are two important mistakes in the same sentence. From the point of view of software engineering, there are currently no known secure, generic and infallible methods for assuring quality and the success of a software project. It is well known that studies show that more than 90% of software projects fail. With respect to “quality comparisons”, all the studies that we have been able to make (the mere fact that the software is proprietary and so “secret” makes the comparison difficult) comparing similar software systems (like the recent comparison of Netscape and Mozilla) show that free and open source software contains fewer bugs per lines of code.

The second error is that free and open source software does not have any intrinsic problems in managing “intellectual property”. The only problem is the struggle against large proprietary software companies who attempt to slow the uptake of free software by means such as DRM, software patents, closed patented formats and standards. While mentioning patents, we have the case of SCO. This is not a problem of free software, but exactly the opposite. In addition, the case of SCO is really only a contractual dispute between SCO and IBM and not a dispute about the copyright of the code in Linux.

Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality.

This is true, but this quality control is indeed performed and each day improves “free” software projects. From Wikipedia to the Linux kernel. We know it as peer review, meritocracy, consensus or “collective intelligence”.

The problem can be stated in reverse: due to the secrecy that surrounds “closed” businesses, it is impossible to apply these corrections without opening the project to the public.

The need to formalise open-source practices is at a critical juncture, for reasons far beyond Wikipedia’s reputation.

This is the Holy Gail of Software Engineering and it still has not been achieved, in spite of all the years of studies, investigations, methods and methodologies. This is not a problem that is intrinsic to free software, but much more general, and is expressed superbly in Brooks' There is no silver bullet.

With respect to Wikipedia, although it has only been in existence for a few years, the comparisons are with encyclopedias that have existed for tens of years. It has problems, like any project where many people are involved, but these problems are talked about in public. It seems that some people are “disturbed” by this public discussion and they see it as a defect rather than an advantage. But in this case they might try to compare Wikipedia with other encyclopedias, or similar, that are of a similar age; they can't because no such encyclopedia exists that is in any way comparable.

With software, for instance, the code is written chiefly not by volunteers, but by employees sponsored for their efforts by companies that think they will in some way benefit from the project.

(Translator's note: this sentence is referring to the way in which some free software is produced...)

This is a very risky statement and is presented as if it were unquestionable. No one knows this for sure, the only thing that is known is that there is a little of everything.

Firefox is really a phoenix: its code was created from the ashes of Netscape

Netscape was re-written from the ground up to become Mozilla and then Firefox. This is why it took so long to publish the first “usable” version.


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