26 - Apr - 2019
  Author- Pravin Taneja

Open source solutions are great. No doubt about it. At the same time, it does carry some inherent limitations/ disadvantages. Unfortunately, some of these limitations/ disadvantages are not really articulated well publicly. In this article, I have summarised these limitations/ disadvantages without holding back anything. Enjoy the ride.

1.  Overnight Experts

Open-source solutions are like a complex engine. Consider it as an open-source physical car. You can download the car. It works like any other private closed-source car. If you know how to drive the car, do basic maintenance like seat adjustments/ minor customizations then you can start selling the car. You can sell it at par with other private cars. You can teach the buyer about how to drive this car and help them with the minor adjustments that you know. You get easy money. Everything is going great. User is happy too, as the car is working fine. Until one day, the buyer needs servicing or engine develops unexpected fault or buyer wants to do major alterations. Now the problem is you don't know anything about its complexity. You cannot troubleshoot, you cannot repair and basically, the buyer is screwed.

A lot of IT professionals start selling complex open-source solutions with very little knowledge about it. These are who Googled & read about a solution, quickly tried it, went to sleep and woke up as expert of that open source solution. Sooner or later they hit problems that are beyond their capacity and it hurts the clients more than it hurts such IT professionals. Some IT vendors shamelessly lift up their hands. Terms & conditions that clients sign basically gives IT vendors complete IMPUNITY FROM ALL LIABILITIES TO THE MAXIMUM POSSIBLE EXTENT. No, I am not shouting here. I am just referring to the clause in your contract agreement that is typically written in all CAPS.

Worst case is when such overnight experts think their entrepreneurial sprint is exhaustive and they return to the comfort of a monthly salary. Poor buyers either cannot reach them or ending up hearing that the vendor who sold them the solution is now a director with a multi-national company. He doesn't do such petty works anymore. Imagine someone whom you paid money a year ago telling you politely & respectfully - “How dare you think I still do such petty works for shabby customers who pay peanuts? Don't dare call me again”.

2.  Extension Chaos

Many times clients require some features that are not part of the core open source solution. Most open source solutions support plugins/ extensions. These are 3rd party solutions that can be easily combined with the open source solution and provided to the clients. In some cases, extensions do a great job. In some cases, extensions are proven to be not good enough. When it's not good enough then IT vendors search for another suitable extension. They uninstall the old extension and then install the new one. Then they realize that all the data keyed in by the client into the old extension is also gone. Overnight Experts are not capable of migrating the data from the database schema used by the old extension into that of the new one. This requires a fair degree of the open source solution understanding as well as a good understanding of the two separate 3rd party extensions. Some IT vendors simply don't care, they uninstall the old one, install the new one and tell their clients to key in data again into the new extension. May God bless the clients who find that the second extension is also not good in some other areas.

3.  Data Theft

When faced with a crisis that the “overnight expert open source IT vendors” cannot resolve, some ending up appointing some specialist. Since specialists in your own country are too costly, they go to cheaper countries or find a freelancer online. Such freelancers can fix the problem for say USD 50 and vendors can charge you about USD 1,500. Everything looks great for such vendors. But specialist/ freelancers engaged need to be given super administrative access to your solution including database so that they can investigate & fix the problem. Some of them give a damn to data protection laws in your country. They make a copy of the data and sell your clients/ customers data to others who buy it. Do you know that a verified customer email & mobile number along with purchasing power of that user can be sold from USD 1 to USD 3? So if client database has 10,000 customer info then its cool USD 10k to 30k money. Do you think freelances in cheaper countries would be loyal for the USD 50 they are getting and leave 10 to 30k on the table? Some are honest. Some make copy & sell. When they do so, all such customers start getting spam emails/ scam calls and what not. When that happens then IT vendors realize that the “specialist” they hired is named “Cool Wizard”, his profile picture is of Leonardo DiCaprio and his country is Bangladesh. Go & sue Cool Wizard Leonardo DiCaprio living in Bangladesh.

4.  Easy Sitting Ducks

Well “open source” software is called thus because its source code is open. This is open even for those aliens living on Earth we call them Hackers. They also go through the source code and find loopholes in that. When they do find, the first thing they do is to have some fun by exploiting the weaknesses they discovered. Chances of most avg. businesses becoming victims of this “fun” are actually quite rare. The worst part is what happens next. Hackers love telling about their discoveries, it's like a badge on their chest which they brandish as “Yes I did it”. When their discovery is in public domain then it creates little or big chaos for a while then the weakness is fixed. Open source patch is released and the weather becomes good again. Hackers create a script to see if anyone is still using the older version of the software. These scripts are published on hacking forums. Junior hackers, called as script kiddies, just run these scripts on every IP address/ domain they can access. Many SMEs adopt open source solutions and then keep using that specific version for years & years. They don't pay for the upgrades and IT vendor doesn't care to give them critical upgrades/ patches too. All such solutions are easy sitting ducks for any script kiddies to have all the “fun”. They can hack-in easily, even without any real hacking skills. Once in they can steal data, manipulate data and/or just delete all/ part of the data for no reason. “Fun” that hackers have is not “funny” at all, it can lead to the founders losing freedom in their own company or worst striking out their dream. From this point of view, closed source is a lot safer. Open source solution with 1-year-old known weakness can cause more damage than 10 current weaknesses in a closed source that no one is aware of.

5. Shun Commercial Solutions

Most open source license terms allow combining the solution with other software pieces having compatible license terms. Almost all commercial software licenses cannot be combined with an open source solution. Imagine an extraordinarily intelligent person, say, Mr. X, creates a brilliant piece of the software that works like a magic. Not everyone is like Sir Alexander Fleming, who invented a medicine like Penicillin; instead of holding patent & making himself one of the richest people on Earth, he decides to give it away for free and save millions of lives. May God continue to bless his soul abundantly. Back to our Mr. X. He is a little bit greedy. He wants to charge “royalty” for each implementation of his software. All open source vendors cannot use the software from Mr. X. No buts, it's just not allowed. If anyone does so, they are violating the terms. Go & read the license terms of the open source solution one more time. You can have coffee to soothe your headache after spending a few hours going through the details.

But seriously, do all follow this clause strictly. Nah. Open source vendors engage such Mr. X all the time. Just such solutions are marketed in a one-to-one meeting with the potential buyers and never highlighted on their corporate website as a mark to respect the law.

6.  Single User Interface (UI)

Most of the Open Source implementations provide only a single UI. If it's browser-based, then it works only from browsers. If it's Windows-based executable, then it can only be used as Windows executables. Today's market requires to deploy anywhere, use anywhere. When you talk about “use anywhere”, you are talking about mobile apps, mobile phones/ tablets both on Android/ iOS, browsers HTML4/ HTML5, Windows/ Macintosh, etc. Established IT vendors are expected to support multiple platforms. All these additional platform support needs to be built by each IT vendor separately and it takes a lot of time & expenditure to do so. Most vendors don't go through the pain of developing such solutions. When a buyer needs such non-default platform support then it cannot be done. Either they compromise or switch to a new vendor with a new set of hopes.

7.  Copyleft to Copyright

Overnight Experts who start using Open Source solution, would always go gaga over how matured & stable their solution is. They would emphasize it's few decades old, used by millions and thus very matured blah blah. Fast forward five or more years - now they have a fair degree of in-house expertize, they can build their own extensions and independent to do crisis management. They have created their own support for non-default platforms. Open source license terms clearly say that all extensions/ changes done to the Open Source solution must also be released under the same open source license. But IT vendors will never give their extensions to the free world as part of “Open Source” license. These will remain as “Closed Source” and with a note “We retain all Intellectual Property Rights”. At this stage, not only their own extensions, but the entire solution from this vendor becomes “Closed Source”.

What has happened here is Copyleft has become Copyright. Now, what does it mean? Well, you know what a Copyright is. Copyright gives you the legal right to stop others from using your creation. Say you write a book & publish it with your Copyright message in it. If I reprint the same book with my name on top of it as Author, you have legal rights to sue me, make me withdraw all books with my name and pay you handsome penalty. Open source license creator wanted to enforce the “freedom” that comes with open source and in their infinite wisdom, they chose a term by changing “right” in Copyright to be “left” as Copyleft. Copyleft is legally enforced freedom. When you get an open source solution then you are free to do anything with it. You can install it on all of your servers/ machines, you can give to all of your subsidiary companies/ sister companies/ holding company, companies belonging to your Golf club buddies, your neighbors all for free without even telling your IT vendor that you did so. You can even start selling it, charge any amount you think is appropriate and keep it all for yourself. This freedom you have. You cannot take this same freedom away from those whom you provide this software. Yes, it holds true even for the IT vendors who sold you the open source solution. But a “senior” open source implementor cannot give their years of hard work as Open Source and they magically transform themselves to remove all traces of being an open source solution and magically a new paragraph appears in their Terms of Services that is titled “Intellectual Property Rights”.

Is switching from Copyleft to copyright allowed? No, it's illegal. Period. Freedom is legally enforced through Copyleft just like your book is protected through Copyright. Anyone removing this freedom is breaking a law.

But some are doing it, right? Yes, hundreds of them. It's so common that now they don't even bother to do the clean job while removing all traces from past where they emphasized that their solution is Open Source. If you dig in you will find all traces & claims from past claims.

Who is supposed to bring some sanity here? Good question, do let me know if you get some answers!

8.  Cloud Only Vendors

Most open source licenses were drafted when Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) was not there. One of the most common Open Source licenses is GNU GPL v3. It includes this little note “Mere interaction with a user through a computer network, with no transfer of a copy, is not conveying”. This has been interpreted by many as “If I deploy my open source solution (modified or unmodified) on my server and give access to other users then it's not conveyed and thus I am not liable to make the source code available to the users”. Recent AGPL license terms explicitly make it clear that source code must be distributed even for SaaS usage. For GPL v2/ v3 licenses also some lawyers argue that it contains JavaScript code that is downloaded & run on the browsers so it is basically partially conveyed, so full source code must be distributed. Well, this will remain a point of arguments for a long time. Today, many IT vendors make use of Open Source solutions, provide it as only SaaS solution and think they are not liable to tell anyone it's based on open source and not liable to distribute the source code. This is so attractive proposition for so many that many have stopped giving on-premises licenses and provide only SaaS versions. Unfortunately, this means that buyers cannot switch from one deployment model (SaaS) to the another (say On-Premises) and freedom of open source has somehow been removed. Meaning contributions from thousands & thousands of software professional in the last few decades towards creating a truly “free” software has become a gold mine for commercial exploitation by some “SaaS only” vendors.

To me biggest failure of Open Source solutions is that in spite of having such a huge Intellectual Property Rights which is almost "Free" and comes with Copyleft that guarantees that the freedom is always made available, it has not resulted in SMEs getting the right solution at the prices that are affordable for them. Most integrated business software solutions that are Open Source are meaningful only for large enterprises. A large number of businesses who need good business software cannot afford to get open source solution implemented. They are forced to compromise with SMB or siloed cloud solutions.

#OpenSource #OpenSourceLimitations #OpenSourceDisadvantages #OpenVsCloseSource #OpenSourceFailures

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