License Equals Software Quality?

Does closed source software have the quality edge over open source?

Michael Hall, former editor of Linux Today, pointed out a blog entry with an interesting take on the recent beating Apple has been taking in the press lately. (Heads up: colorful language ahead.) It was a posting that made me sit back and re-evaluate some of my own views.

Apple fan Mike Lee takes a lot of the anti-Apple media hype to task and raises some strong points that essentially reminded me that it's not particularly fair to judge Apple as an open company--because they were never an open company to begin with. As someone who's also raised questions about Apple's practices in terms of fencing web content for the sake of user experience, I have to admit I am guilty of applying that filter to view Apple, too.

Lee points the finger of blame squarely at Google, which he believes is the ultimate author of the Apple hate. I don't agree with all of Lee's points, because he paints Google with almost a broad a brush as he accuses Apple's critics of doing. His overall thesis, though, has merit: judge Apple on its products, not what other people say about those products.

One of Lee's points that I definitely had trouble with was his take on open source, made while explaining why people eventually started migrating to Macs and Linux from Windows:

"People did not choose Windows over Mac because of some perceived level of openness absent in Apple. Most people don't care about that stuff. That's why closed-source dominates commercial software--because it produces better software. Not better as in Richard Stallman--better as in actually getting your work done."

This is a common argument, one that we have all heard before. And Lee's argument about closed source software can resonate even with many Linux users, who have, at one point or another, lamented about some feature found in Windows or Mac and wished that it would be duplicated in Linux. The advantage of open source is that anyone with the knowledge can add features to software. The disadvantage can be that we have to rely on the kindness of strangers to have the time and resources to add the features.

Many people see commercial vendors in Linux space as a remedy to this problem. Get some money into the ecosystem, they argue, and projects will get devoted resources and complete in a more timely fashion. Except, as we've seen time and again, sometimes when a commercial vendor starts driving the direction of the project, project members will often object on the grounds the vendor is stifling creativity or some such thing.

But does closed source software simply work better? One could make the case that because of the commercial nature of closed source, i.e., finished projects make money, that closed source software is ready to work faster--though I don't think you could make that a blanket statement. Like open source software, a feature added to proprietary software has to be decided upon, only now the feature has to pass another bar to get included: it has to be profitable. Which means, even if it's the Coolest Feature Ever, if may not get included because the proprietary vendor may not want to make the investment.

This is why, ultimately, I think the whole open vs. closed software quality argument is moot. Each of the approaches has strengths and weaknesses the other approach doesn't, which balances out the notion that any software will be higher or lower quality because of its license. Developers code software poorly or well based on their own strengths.

There are other facets of the open vs. closed debate, a debate that I believe open source ultimately wins. Just don't make software quality part of the argument. It's a moot point.

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