Why open source software?

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In honor of my group at Sony open sourcing ATF, the tool to make tools, and this week, the ATF Level Editor, I’m going to explain why open source makes sense for both individuals and companies (and especially game tool makers now that we can share a tool making framework, ATF) in a series of blog posts. I’ll start at the beginning.

Why open source software?

There are three kinds of software:

  1. Commercial
  2. Proprietary
  3. Open source

Many programmers work on commercial software, software made by one company and sold to everyone else. Its ROI is easy to measure: simply add up revenues and divide by costs. For instance, game developers make commercial software. However, not all software developed by game teams is sold. They also develop tools of all sorts, which are rarely sold. These tools are an example of proprietary software.

Most programmers develop proprietary software, software used within a single company. Proprietary software is built to reduce internal costs, not for resale. Unfortunately these cost savings are hard to calculate. Without a clear return on investment (ROI), businesses often treat proprietary software as a pure cost, best minimized, which might be penny-wise but pound-foolish. (To find the value of such software, an investment in analytics is required.)

A few of us work on open source software, software made by either individuals or companies and given away for free to anyone who accepts the license. Linux, Firefox, Chromium, much of Android, and parts of Apple’s OS X are well-known examples of open source software.

Why do individuals participate in developing open source software?

1)   Some programmers are passionate about some kinds of software and so work on these open source projects for fun and enlightenment. This is the same reason people play music, run, or paint. Also, like music or running, this gives people a chance to be part of a group of people who share their interests. We take great pride in being part of a tribe.

2)   Individuals can master their chosen specialty by working on open source projects. Their contributions are open to the world, displayed to any company interested in acquiring the skills demonstrated.

Why do companies participate?

  • Razors and razor blades: We give away something up front to unlock future revenues. Phone companies give away phones (but not service contracts), razor companies (almost) give away razors (but not razor blades), printer companies discount printers (but not toner), game publishers give away ‘free’ games (but not micro-transactions), and companies that sell Linux services give resources to support Linux. They give away the hard to monetize ‘standard’ parts like HTML, JavaScript, or Linux, and sell high value services on top, such as Google ads or professional services.
  • Divide and conquer: Companies are banned from coordinating pricing, labor costs, or ‘unfair’ divisions, even when these would benefit the consumer. However, collaborating on open source software is legal and saves money. Instead of ten companies each building a proprietary compiler (for instance), ten companies can split the development cost for a ten to one savings.
  • Two heads are better than one: When companies’ experts work together, the result is better than if they worked apart. (When Sony shut down its proprietary tool chain efforts and joined the LLVM consortium, it ended up with a better tool chain and saved money.)
  • Trust, but verify: No company wants buggy software. To find more flaws, open software to more eyes. No programmer wants black boxes, as APIs and documentation may lie. Only source can be trusted. When something breaks, source is needed to find the problem. All software has flaws, and unless you don’t care about them, you want source.
  • Build community: A successful open source project will attract partners, potential employees, and efficient global PR, marketing, business development, training and support.  If you need a global standard to enable your business, choose open source.

Next post, what shouldn’t be open sourced?