According to a survey conducted by Black Duck Software and North Bridge Venture Partners Open source software is taking over the software world. (I read it in this NetworkWorld article.) To be fair, there were only 800 participants in the survey, which means that there were millions who were not polled, but the trends revealed are a little different than they've been in the past. As an open-source user I tend to agree with the conclusions.
In the past, cost was cited as the number one reason for choosing open-source. I absolutely agree with the idea of not paying a lot of money for something that is freely available from other sources. However, I wouldn't say that I only do free software. There are open projects that I support with subscriptions and donations. I'm finding that I'm sending money to them more and more because their work really makes a difference to me and I want to see it continue. Somehow I don't get that same feeling when I buy something from a giant company. (Though I am very fond of some giant companies—you understand, right?) Regardless, cost is no longer the number one reason the surveyed people are choosing open-source.
The next ideal for open-source software that had bubbled up in the past is no vendor lock-in. I can appreciate this. We've heard the story of the poor Apple customer who had his life erased because of a policy whoopsie. Another recent article shows how someone lost everything they had connected with Google. I use the Google tools a lot for my personal things, so this was especially chilling. Openness helps prevent you from having your information and functionality held hostage by a company because their license changes, or their price structure changes, or they get themselves into financial or legal trouble and shut down. Yet this was no longer cited as the top reason to use open-source software.
What was the top reason in this last survey? Quality! Those surveyed said that they found open-source software to be of better quality than the commercial alternatives. I have found this to be the case myself. It did take me a little time to get used to some of the ins and outs of using open-source. I had to learn how to learn and where to find help. It was a real struggle in the beginning and I'm not sure why I stuck with it, other than I was fascinated by this concept of community computing. It reminded me more of Star Trek and I'm just geeky enough to want that. Of course, it's much easier for someone coming into things today. Ubuntu Linux installs using magic as opposed to compiling everything from scratch like I did with my first Slackware installation. Social tools, particularly Wikis, have made a difference in the availability and quality of the information... and there are demos on just about anything you would care to do.
I really do believe that open-source software is ultimately of better quality than what is available commercially. I think it's because they are free from some of the compromises which take place in the commercial world. I've been involved with situations where money wasn't available for some particular aspect of a project so it was dropped... forever. Resources are applied to what will make the most money and the "good enough" criterion is economical. It fits with the three-legged project stool: You can have it fast; you can have it cheap; you can have it high quality. Pick two!
Commercial software, by necessity, tends to come in under the cheap and fast model. Competition demands that. Open-source tends to follow the cheap and high-quality model. As long as people are curious and willing to spend time with a problem, the open-source project will get resource long after the commercial one was defunded. I have this sort of fantasy that commercial vendors will begin a mode similar to what is done with pharmaceuticals. The product is designed and sold, but after a period of time it goes open, like drugs becoming generic. I know that Adobe has done this with some of their technologies. Star Office, which became OpenOffice.org (which begat LibreOffice) is not exactly that story, but in the same vein. Tesseract, and optical character recognition (OCR) engine has an interesting story. If you think about it, letting projects go open can have some real benefit. People who like the product get to continue using it while the company gets to divest itself of supporting this legacy item. It could be a beautiful thing.
I wonder what sorts of nostalgic things would come back if they were opened. For example, today I should be receiving my Atari Flashback 3, a chance to relive all of those games that I couldn't afford when I was a kid. That's pretty cool. I wonder what would happen if the Atari APIs were republished and opened up with a mechanism to let people create new games which could be downloaded onto they console. Wouldn't it be interesting to see what today's thinking might do with that technology and what sort of creativity would come from today's perspective on yesterday's limitations. It would be a niche for sure and not a way to make money, but that's just the sort of thing that open-source is for.
Anyway... I'm intrigued by the survey. It reflects what I've thought for years so it makes me feel very sage. Here is a slide show of the survey results