Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

It's All About the Language

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There’s a lot more discussion about Open Source GIS these days, which is great (even if it took a global financial meltdown for some people to try it). However, one thing that has bothered me for a while is the language that gets used when discussing it. The short version- this is not about arguing that open source is “better” than proprietary, as some twitter debates I’ve participated in recently have assumed! Comparing open source and proprietary is no longer about comparing apples and oranges- it’s about comparing apples with different labels on the side, and the language we use to make these comparisons should reflect that.

Example 1:

Try it, it’s not as dodgy as you think!

This is usually used by people supporting open source software, but to my mind it actually undermines the point people are trying to make- in that it introduces the possibility of “dodginess” (aka risk) into the discussion. Admittedly a few years ago there was some possibility that people’s experience of free software was something that they downloaded from tucows, but that’s no longer the case. If you want to say something is good, then say it’s good rather than that it’s not dodgy!

Example 2:

It’s still very costly to learn how to use open source software

This one comes up fairly often in discussions about the pros and cons of open source. It’s true that learning any type of software takes time (and therefore money), but when you’re talking about the modern incarnations of QGIS for example, I would argue that the outlay is going to be absolutely comparable to any other established desktop GIS package. If what you mean is “My staff, who have been using Package A for years, will need to invest time in learning Package B”, then that is also just as applicable to any software package under the sun- even when B is actually A.2. If anyone can say truthfully that they coped seamlessly with the switch from Windows XP to a later version, or from Office 2003 onwards, then I will call you a big fibber! It’s fair to say that learning to use command-line tools is tricky if you’re used to a GUI, or that databases are difficult for beginners- but the software license has nothing to do with this. Ironically the reason this gets trotted out when discussing open source is that suddenly people have access to a much greater range of tools, and hence are learning packages (such as server-side databases) that they previously wouldn’t have had access to.

Example 3:

But what about the support?

This is often asked by people enquiring about open source software, but it’s too woolly, and easy to counter with corporate SLA-speak. There’s a huge disconnect between the expectations of corporate clients about what they get when they buy subscription to a proprietary software package, and what would happen if there was an actual problem with the software. Have a look at the small print in a EULA if you’re interested. What the actual end-users want, I would imagine, is a responsive support system where if they have a problem, someone fixes it for them. The difference between proprietary and open source software is purely where you go for the answers.

Going back to the apples and oranges analogy- by using these arguments that are just as applicable to any kind of software, you’re not making a valid comparison. I’m also a firm (possibly naive) believer that invalid comparisons are a lose-lose situation for both proprietary and open source software. By muddying the debate, it’s hard to concentrate on the actual, important differences, or indeed make a proper informed decision. Furthermore, if valid comparisons are made, and there do turn out to be differences in (say) support outcomes (rather than options or contracts or other legalese) then that’s something software suppliers of all persuasions can build and improve on.

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