Ever since I have been young, I have heard two competing proverbs related to objects of a gratis nature. The first proverb, “The best things in life are free”, seems to speak for the optimist in life, the type of person that views the glass as “half full”. The second has various forms but in general goes something along the lines of, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This second proverb seems to embody the pessimistic view of freeness, the “glass half empty” perspective.
Being objective about all matters, I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Instead, I am a realist and thus while many might believe that these two views of optimism and pessimism are utterly and completely contradictory and mutually exclusive, such is not the case. To point, some object might indeed be free from cost and the best thing in life but still not be completely and utterly “free”, as in there might still be a “catch”. But, this catch may or may not have an impact on such an object’s “best thing in life” status if that catch is not too great a burden compared to its overall usefulness.
One can only conclude from this analysis that the second, pessimistic, proverb is universal while the first is not, for something that is free might be equally worthless to an individual if it does not meet his or her needs while something that individual has to pay for might meet their needs exactly and thus be the “best” in their eyes. Thus, while some free things in life are indeed grand, others are complete and utter crap but regardless; there’s always a catch. Always. It may not be intuitively obvious as to what the catch might be or it might not even be that bad of a “catch”, but it is there, trust me.
I have been moved towards such musings of “free” because of my recent articles regarding the open source and free software movements. I started thinking, what, if any are the true costs of open source? Where’s the “catch” and does this catch or catches outweigh the benefits of open source and thus demote it from its otherwise presumed “best thing in life” status? This exercise took all of about 30 seconds since the “catches” of open source are plentiful; so plentiful, in fact, that it astounds me that I have never really ever seen anything regarding this topic. Apparently, we live in a world of optimists that all assume that open source and free software are “the best things in life” and that there is no impact other than millions of shiny, happy end users who weep with joy and grovel in homage to the magical developers in the sky that rain free software down upon the wretched masses.
Luckily, as I have previously stated, I tend to be a realist and thus, prompted by the; dare I say, overreaction to “Penguin Suicide Bombers” by the open source community, I have identified and categorized a large number of costs or “catches” to open source. I have classified these costs into four categories, environmental, health, social, and economic. While I examine each of these categories of costs below, I leave it as an exercise of the reader, academics and the proponents and opponents of open source and free software to assess the true net gain or loss. A swag at it says it comes out even or quite probably a net overall loss.
First up are the environmental costs of open source. This one is easy. Computers and computer monitors require electrical power to run which increases the carbon footprint of open source developers. Obviously, one would need to examine the environmental damage from 24/7 operation of a computer and a computer monitor versus some other activity which the individual might otherwise engage. But, remember that these are not just your average computer users, these are developers who typically have more powerful computers and even bigger monitors than average computer users. In addition, they engage in CPU intensive activities such as compiling programs and running web servers. Since we could presume that they might otherwise be watching TV, the net environmental impact is a net loss since the monitor would equate to the power consumption of the TV and thus the computer CPU represents additional power consumption. Thus, it is obvious that open source programming is an anti-green activity. Undoubtedly, if Al Gore were to chart increasing carbon emissions along with increased use of computing, there would be a strong correlation.
But, this does not capture the full extent of the damage. We must also consider the efficiency and innovation of open source development. Are amateur programmers as efficient as professional programmers? In this we must give open source programmers the benefit of the doubt and say yes since many professional programmers moonlight as open source developers. But, are their combined efforts as efficient as professional efforts? Probably not. Since open source programmers operate as a loose confederation rather than as highly structured projects, it is likely that open source development efforts are somewhat less efficient than professional efforts.
The reasons are simple. First, it is illogical to think that open source developers are somehow “better” than professional programmers since, as noted, they are often one and the same. Second, professional organizations tend to be money motivated and thus efficient use of resources is paramount. Open source developers have no such motivation because resources are effectively free and thus have no motivation towards efficiency. Third, the loose confederation of the open source community makes it nigh impossible to achieve the same level of coordination and integration as exhibited by large, professional software development firms. For example, the level of integration that Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP and CA are starting to achieve within their own product sets puts open source development to shame. This level of integration makes the whole more valuable than the parts and is not something that open source is ever likely to achieve since its very model nearly excludes the possibility of a singular vision or close coordination of efforts.
As for innovation, open source primarily reinvents the wheel. Again, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since many private companies also generally reinvent the wheel but the point is that there is no notable innovation in open source that might otherwise offset and help negate the overall environmental impact of open source. In fact, a better avian mascot for open source might be the mocking bird rather than the penguin. An oft overlooked fact in the annals of computer technology is that the true source of the innovative technologies of the Internet and most other base computing technologies in use today were in fact innovations of United States government funding, specifically the military, and private companies such as Xerox. Open source can claim no meaningful innovations with regards to computing technologies, they simply look at existing proprietary software and mimic it. Linux is a clone of other operating systems. Open office, clone. Firefox, clone. This is not to say that IE or Windows or most other software is not similarly uninspired but at least government and private industry can claim some pedigree of true innovation.
To clarify and summarize this point, the open source movement is simply providing the same types of software as already exist and thus their efforts cannot be viewed as anything other than generally redundant and therefore a waste of electrical energy. While perhaps not the most optimal state in general, the most eco-friendly state of software development would be where there was only a single software program available for any particular task. For example, there would be just a single web browser where all development efforts were focused. This would ensure that no electrical energy was unnecessarily wasted since, as we all know, the frivolous waste of electrical power will ultimately destroy humanity and the entire planet through global warming.
There are likely health costs to open source as well. Coding is a rather sedentary activity and can thus lead to a lack of exercise which in turn might cause obesity and heart disease. Developers are famously stereotyped as addicted to junk food and Mountain Dew, which is not a particularly healthy diet. More subtle, perhaps are issues of sleep deprivation and loss of hearing. Open source developers often burn the midnight oil, as evidenced from personal anecdotes and discussion forum postings time stamped in the wee hours of the morning. Developers are also famously stereotyped as wearing headphones while coding. This prolonged exposure to such concentrated sound waves could lead to hearing loss similar to the issues that iPods are fearing to have on teens.
The social costs are perhaps the most disturbing. Open source programmers might better spend their time volunteering for a charity organization such as the United Way or the Red Cross. They might better use the money they spend on increased electrical bills to send money to a charity organization or a child in a third-world country. Finally, how many young men and women have gone home with the “wrong” person because better suited, open source programmers were busy pounding keys rather than brewskies in a bar?
Finally, there are the economic costs of open source. While economics are generally cited as a benefit of open source development, the economic costs are difficult to refute. Professional software development companies lose millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue to open source software. This means that these companies cannot hire as many people as they might otherwise employ which impacts consumerism and thus the entire economy of most countries. Corporations also most likely lose worker productivity as a significant portion of developers that they employ who participate in open source projects likely steal hours from their employers similar to what Bruce Peren did at Pixar. And all of this does not even begin to cover the costs associated with compromising intellectual property rights or losses in hygiene products revenue due to unwashed open source developers slaving over their keyboards rather than getting fixed up to get hooked up.
Another economic-related cost is the impact to the professional status and reward of software developers and other computer technology experts. Essentially, the message that is being conveyed by open source programmers is that professional software development, and by association, professional IT expertise is unnecessary. This is akin to believing that a loose confederation of witch doctors, mothers and moonlighting physicians are as good or better than hospitals and professional medical care or that self-taught legal sources are as good as consulting properly qualified attorneys. While I am not aware of any studies on the particulars, it is hard to believe that this does not have a significant impact on the general perception and indeed the wages of IT workers.
In conclusion, open source development appears on the surface to be anti-green, unhealthy, antisocial and damaging to the overall world economy. And this essay barely scratches the surface. Given the extent of such costs, it is rather surprising that these negative aspects or “catches” have not been more widely identified and discussed.
Originally published 2008