Subject: Re: Software quality: free vs. proprietary
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <>
Date: Fri, 29 Oct 1999 15:32:18 +0900 (JST)

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

    >> 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.
    >> :-)

    Kragen> Whether it is your problem or not is irrelevant.  Whether
    Kragen> it captures eyeballs is the question.  I believe LPD said
    Kragen> on this list a year or two ago that he didn't get much of
    Kragen> that for GhostScript, so anecdotally, the answer is no.

You missed the point of mentioning AFPL, and wrong anecdote.  The
point is that free/open source as defined leaves all kinds of
practices, which to the untrained eye appear to be open source, in the
domain of closed.

The anecdote I have in mind is the repeated statement in the
management literature that formal software inspections catch most of
the bugs.

    Kragen> 4.2BSD, Emacs, gcc, and EROS are neither taillight-chasing
    Kragen> nor cherry-picking.  The GIMP was, but isn't now.  KDE,
    Kragen> GNOME, AbiWord, Linux, and glibc are clearly doing a lot
    Kragen> of both.

OK, I cannot oppose your judgement on which projects do tc&cp.

I no longer use the term "taillight-chasing," by the way, because I
don't know what it means.  It seems to imply "following the leader"
but that isn't what I want to say.  What I had in mind was that
(re)implementing a design composed of clearly specified features is
much easier than starting without a spec.  I'm sure that's
uncontroversial as stated, but judgement as to who was following a
clearly specified design is something else again, and an area where I
concede expertise (although my prejudices and ignorance will leak into 
the discussion).

    Kragen> But even if you were right about t-c&c-p, Linux seems to
    Kragen> have done a much better job of t-c&c-p than, say, AIX.


    >> (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).

    Kragen> It is reasonable.  It is also reasonable to suppose that
    Kragen> this is not the case.  Do you have some evidence one way
    Kragen> or the other?

Not for software.  But for everything else in the economic realm, it
generally pays to do the easy thing first and build on that.

    >> 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.

    Kragen> Well, how about the 'fuzz' study?  That compared several
    Kragen> implementations of the Unix toolset on quality in a
    Kragen> measurable way:

This is useful and a clear measure of quality.  (URL?)

I would say given the results that a responsible vendor would offer
the GNU toolset, at least as an option.  Do we have _any_ responsible
vendors?  :-)

    >> Where proprietary software succeeds, free software may continue
    >> development,

    Kragen> By "where proprietary software succeeds", do you mean
    Kragen> "where proprietary software does not abandon the field
    Kragen> because free software has not yet succeeded"?

Yes.  By "succeed" I mean achieve clear superiority in the eyes of
users.  This is necessarily somewhat hypothetical, it cannot be
measured directly by the market test of who sells more.  (I'm sorry I
wasn't more explicit about this, but I didn't realize what my
definition was until I saw your discussion.)

    >> 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> I am not clear on what you are saying.  Are you saying
    Kragen> that if free software is less buggy, but people still use
    Kragen> proprietary software, then it is because the proprietary
    Kragen> software offers them something they want that the free
    Kragen> software does not?

I am offering that as a possibility, not as _the_ explanation.  In
particular, as long as users remain sufficiently uninformed that they
cannot make a comparison, I would not admit any contender to be a
"success" by my definition.

    Kragen> I do not agree with that.  Here are some other possibilities:


    Kragen> And if it *is* because the proprietary software offers
    Kragen> them something they want, what they want may not be
    Kragen> quality:

I admit all of your other possibilities; any of them would disqualify
proprietary software from claiming "success" by my definition.

My point is that if proprietary software and free software are
actually succeeding in different places, it may be that "user value"
or the negative of "total cost of ownership" is higher for the
proprietary software, and claims of higher quality are missing the

To the extent that free software does produce higher quality on in
principle measurable variables ("Less crashes!"  "More long
options!"), that is important.  But is that what users need?  Ed
Yourdon talks (out of both sides of his mouth ;) about "zero-defect"
and "good-enough" software.  Some users need one, others the other.

We shouldn't focus on debating points like fewer crashes; my wife
doesn't care that Windows NT left to itself for a few score hours will
exhaust memory and slow to a crawl (if that urban legend is true)---
our daughter never gives her more than 30 minutes with the computer
anyway, and in a Japanese apartment she has to unplug it and put it
away or there's no place to put dinner.

Of course to date fewer crashes has been a huge selling point; server
uptime is a very big deal indeed.  The point is that as you move into
different areas, different aspects of quality come to the fore, and
cost may also have different weight.  To give a strained example,
theoretically, a highly optimized proprietary kernel could run in less
memory than Linux (but in practice they don't); still, if they did the
extra memory would be an additional cost.

And some kinds of quality are pretty general (doing something
reasonable with unreasonable data, for example).

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."