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Tuesday, 03 November 2009 07:48

Open source FUD is alive and kicking

Ten, or even five years ago, it was not uncommon to see articles surface periodically, spouting gross untruths about free and open source software.

The frequency with which such articles appear has lessened to a marked degree simply because people who pen them often end up being branded as fools.

In an era when this genre of software was less known and had a much smaller pool of users, it was possible to spread misinformation on the known premise that if mud is thrown, then some is likely to stick.

But these days that doesn't happen so often. Still, when it does, the author deserves to have his "arguments" examined in the cold light of day.

The latest bit of misinformation comes from a company known as SirsiDynix which makes software for libraries. I'm talking about the hallowed buildings that house books, what we call hard copies these days.

The document, composed by one Stephen Abram, the company's chief strategist and vice-president for innovation, initially surfaced at the Wikileaks site.

As an aside, let me remind Abram here that trying to spread misinformation about free and open source software is neither innovative nor good strategy. Maybe the company should rethink those designations.

I've been watching people trying to spread FUD about FOSS for the last 12 years and not one has succeeded. They've all been shot down in flames. Some of the hardy veterans who have been countering the FUD, people like the erudite David F. Skoll of the Canadian company Roaring Penguin, are still around and still firing back.


A technologist known as Alex Hudson noticed the document on Wikileaks and blogged about it; the people at Linux Weekly News noticed Hudson's post and linked to it.

By the time I became aware of it via LWN, the venerable Abram had apparently developed cold feet; he had become aware that the document, which had been sent to selected customers of SirsiDynix, had leaked.

So what does the good Stephen do? He promptly creates an entry on his blog - which is called Stephen's Lighthouse (!) - calling for a respectful discussion!!! There's a Yiddish word which says it beautifully - chutzpah!

Here are a few gems from this secretive document. It is ostensibly created "to help buyers become aware of the limitations of open source... to clarify what open source is, how it is different from proprietary software platforms, and why Integrated Library Systems (ILS) are not ready for open source at this point."

The very next line in the document is pure FUD: "The concept of open source is fairly misunderstood and quite vague." What exactly people cannot understand about the two words "open" and "source" is mystifying. When Bruce Perens coined that term to make it easy for business people to understand how free software could be useful to them, he left no room for ambiguity.

For the benefit of Mr Abram, here it is once again; open as opposed to close. Source, the base from which something is derived. Get that, sir?

There are different open source licences but the base elements are always the same. Nothing mysterious, nothing vague. My 14-year-old knows what it means. I presume that Mr Abram is somewhat older.


The next bit that caught my eye is: "Nevertheless, it should be noted that it is rare for completely open source projects to be successful."

Now that takes some beating, doesn't it? Going by that logic Linux isn't successful. Apache isn't successful. Firefox is an abject failure. We GNU/Linux users are sure a bunch of real losers to be using software that has failed so miserably.

And it goes on "...these projects often end up being archipelagos of systems driven by a philosophical principle that is anti-proprietary." The last I heard there are plenty of proprietary applications being run on Linux - which wouldn't be possible if it was anti-proprietary - but, hey, who am I to contradict the chief strategist and vice-president of innovation at such a big company?

I guess that companies like HP, Oracle, Intel, IBM, Novell, Nokia, Google, and a host of others don't really qualify as proprietary companies then - they all seem to be remarkably friendly to open source. Even Microsoft is talking nice things about open source these days - but then maybe they've shunned the proprietary label as well. I could be wrong, though - I'm just a journalist, I'm no vice-president or chief strategist of even a one-man company.

The paper is available here. Not to tire you too much, gentle reader, it touches on total cost of ownership ("It is very unlikely that an open source solution is any less expensive than a proprietary solution"), compatibility ("for libraries that choose an open source system, the opportunity to integrate different systems into the solution is limited, at best"), customisation ("However, it should be stated that customization is not without risk. Extensive customization, especially with potentially little or no documentation can make upgrades and changes increasingly difficult.") and so on.

The crowning bit of ignorance is where Abram writes: "Open source is often represented as more secure. This, too, is debatable. Some of the most security-conscious entities, like the United States Department of Defense, restrict the use of open source software for fear that it could pose a terrorist opportunity."

If memory serves me right, just a few days ago, iTWire was among a host of tech publications that ran a story which said that the US Defence Department had given the thumbs-up to increased deployment of open source software. This was no speculation; the DoD put out a statement to this effect.

Damn! It must have been a fake - else surely  SirsiDynix and the good Mr Abram would have modified their document?


Abram ends what surely has to be a remarkable document by saying: "While we encourage the development of open formats, we must discourage libraries from jumping headlong into an open source platform to operate their ILS system on. At the current production cycle, jumping into open source would be dangerous, at best."

Contrast this with his tone in his blog post where he calls for a respectful discussion - the man obviously wants to avoid getting roasted.

He writes: "The paper has been posted and exchanged in the past day, rumoured to be a secretive lobbying effort that SirsiDynix has been hiding. This is simply not true. There has been nothing secretive about the position paper, we have been offering and sharing it with many customers as we meet with them, and I am offering it to anyone interested at the link below."

The dumb asses at Wikileaks obviously didn't know it was such an open document. What a bunch of idiots, especially when Mr Abram was willing to give it freely to all and sundry. Come, come Abram, when you've been checkmated and caught with your trousers down, be a man and own up.

Abram ends his blog post with something that howls out "hypocrisy."

"Lastly, a personal request. I encourage and look forward to the discussion that will no doubt add to the online conversation we have seen in the last day. However, I sincerely ask that my colleagues keep a professional tone when speaking to their positions. I have been dismayed in the past few weeks when seeing ad hominem attacks being propagated online, especially when it is hurled at me and my family. I think you all agree, it cheapens the discussion at hand and hides the critical points that others are trying to express."

If I get it right, what Abram is trying to say is that it's fine to make statements that have no basis in fact, some of which are outright lies, about a genre of software. After that, you should treat him with respect, not call him an idiot, treat what he says as an exercise in erudition.

What seems to bother Abram and his company is the emergence of two applications called Evergreen and Koha, both FOSS projects that aim to provide functionality similar to what SirsiDynix's software does. But then he doesn't say that in so many words, that is just this evil journalist's conclusion.

Abram provides no citations for any of the claims he makes in his paper. But then you already knew that - in the absence of facts, whom does one cite?

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.





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