Subject: Re: Software quality: free vs. proprietary
From: Ben_Tilly@trepp.com
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1999 10:29:22 -0400


> >>>>> "Kragen" == Kragen Sitaker <kragen@pobox.com> 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?
>
Free software available today is of better quality than competing
proprietary software.

> 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.  :-)
>
I don't know what theory you are going by here, but pragmatically
it doesn't work that way.  Compare the unwillingness of peopel to
have anything to do with Sun's Community Source License versus
the popularity of the GPL.

Sure in some sense, you can get an arbitrarily high fraction, but the
fraction you get is strongly dependent upon how close you are to
what most people call "free".

> 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).
>
Tell me what taillights were being chased by each of the following
pieces of software:

 - Emacs
 - patch
 - BIND
 - qmail
 - Perl
 - Apache

> 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.
>
"Cannot outgrow"?  Look at the ages of the software items that I
just listed!  While free software is certainly spreading today into
new (for it) areas, it has a long history that you do not appreciate!

> 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?
>
Compare gcc with Visual C++.
Compare Emacs with TextPad.
Compare TCL/Tk with VB.
Compare (name your favorite shell) with DOS.

You were saying?

> 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?
>
Most of the comparisons that I gave above are between pieces of
software that managed to exist on the same platform for some time,
where the free software predated the proprietary software.  (OK, so
they originated on different different platforms.)

Ben