Subject: Software quality: free vs. proprietary
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1999 23:11:06 +0900 (JST)

>>>>> "Kragen" == Kragen Sitaker <> writes:

    Kragen> Free software doesn't solve all the world's problems,
    Kragen> only some of them.  In particular, it doesn't solve the
    Kragen> problem of perfectly incenting people to produce good
    Kragen> software.  It looks like it will do a better job of
    Kragen> producing good software than the proprietary software
    Kragen> system.

On what evidence?

Theoretically, there's no reason to believe that an arbitrarily high
fraction of the "more eyeballs" effect can't be captured by adopting
some open source practices while keeping more or less proprietary
rights.  (This is sort of cheating, since "free" is pretty absolute,
while proprietary is everything else; but then, when the Aladdin Free
Public License is defined to be "not free," that's your definition,
and not my problem.  :-)

Pragmatically, remember that current levels of quality are based on
taillight-chasing (and therefore design bugs are less of a problem)
and cherry-picking (it's reasonable to suppose that free software has
entered those parts of the industry where it has a comparative
advantage, or anyway least disadvantage, vis-a-vis the proprietary
model---thus it is going to be hard to maintain current levels of
efficiency and quality as the domain of free software spreads).

This is not to say that free software cannot outgrow both of those
stages, as it is in fact doing; just that things get qualitatively
harder from now on.

If I'm misunderstanding you, and you are contemplating a mixed system,
then it's not clear to me whether the free and proprietary sectors are
comparable on quality in an interesting way.  "Hello, world," as
presented in K&R, is provably bug-free (on the GNU/Linux system,
anyway ;-).  Surely it is higher quality than Windows 98 in that
sense, but who cares?

You would have to compare head-to-head on comparable projects, but it
seems likely to me that where free software succeeds, proprietary
software will abandon the field.  Where proprietary software succeeds,
free software may continue development, but evidently in the eyes of
consumers free plus bug-free (by hypothesis) does not outweight
whatever it is that the proprietary software is offering, presumably
at a higher monetary price, besides.  So what's the relevant quality
measure there?

    Kragen> Perhaps we can come up with a
    Kragen> military-industrial-university system for software as we
    Kragen> have for science.

Heaven forbid, on efficiency grounds (not ethical ones, I put that hat 
away).  (Wisecrack only, I do not plan to defend it.)

University of Tsukuba                Tennodai 1-1-1 Tsukuba 305-8573 JAPAN
Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences       Tel/fax: +81 (298) 53-5091
What are those two straight lines for?  "Free software rules."