Background > What does open mean? > Implications of closed source
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Implications of closed source

The proprietary, closed source model has advantages and drawbacks.

elementary students using open source

The open source movement started because some people didn't like the proprietary, closed source model. Some proprietary software may be a good value for schools. Aside from philosophical concerns, schools should consider:



Schools depend on a variety of hardware and software. They need compatible software. New programs must run on existing operating systems. Different programs need to work together. Ideally, software should use universal formats. A document saved in one word processor should be compatible with another word processor. A Web server should be compatible with all Web browsers.

Until a format becomes universal, some users will struggle with incompatibility.

Unfortunately, the proprietary model often depends on a single, secret format. Such formats can be almost universal in their dominance (e.g. Adobe Acrobat and the PDF format). Until a format is universally accepted, however, the minority suffers in compatibility (e.g. Corel WordPerfect). The consequences of format competition can be seen in the past (e.g. VHS, Betamax) and the present (e.g. recordable DVDs).

When formats becomes almost universal, compatibility is usually good. Files created in one program can be used in other programs. For example, the programs in Microsoft's Office Suite are very compatible, allowing the user to easily move information between a word processor, spreadsheet, or presentation.

Open source proponents argue that compatibility is better achieved and preserved with open formats.

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Quality control

Ideally, the proprietary model allows a company to control quality. For example, software companies usually license their formats to other companies. (They use non-disclosure agreements to control the secrets.) Specialized third-party programs are compatible because the creators paid to learn the secrets. The owner of the format can build a brand based on the reliability of the format.

The Microsoft Windows operating system is a ready example. While the hardware industry is complex and chaotic, Microsoft Windows gives other software developers a stable, predictable environment. Once Microsoft Windows is successfully installed on a computer it becomes almost indistinguishable from any other combination of hardware. Software companies can create and market more reliable software.

This potential quality control is also meaningful for hardware and hardware drivers. Compared to Linux, Microsoft Windows currently has better support for devices like digital cameras, videocameras, handheld computers (e.g. PDAs), scanners, etc.

Under the proprietary model, company programmers may work for several months to create a program, then reveal the finished product. Under the open source model, programmers release new versions of a program early and often. Some people believe that open source produces better software because the process and product are open. (Some software companies are starting to agree.)

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Safety & security

students using open source

Schools need technology that protects students' safety. They also need to protect the systems from some students (or other malicious users). Ideally, the proprietary model allows a company to ensure safety and security. Since they control the source code, the company should be able to control risks and close loopholes. For example, Microsoft offers a complete office software solution, using Microsoft Windows, Outlook, Explorer, and Office. Microsoft is continually trying to improve verification and other security measures.

Unfortunately, software is more a process than a product. Complex programs hide thousands of bugs and other security risks, which may not be discovered for weeks or months after the software is "complete." There is a regular cycle of identifying new needs, adding new features, fixing bugs, and updating the program. Some proprietary software companies are very responsive to safety and security issues; others are not.

Open source may offer some advantages for safety and security.

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Potential monopolies

When a format, program, or operating system becomes almost universal, other companies must create compatible software or risk losing customers. Existing users may have "locked in" their data and other solutions. It's difficult and/or expensive to create a compatible program. The company with the secrets holds a potential monopoly.

For example, the two most popular desktop operating systems are Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh. Because the operating systems are different and proprietary, software has to be created and sold in "Windows" and "Macintosh" versions. Many software companies can't afford to create two versions of their programs. So they target the larger market and never create Macintosh versions. Macintosh is perceived as a niche market, thus discouraging other developers and potential new users.

Schools should be aware of these effects on the software market, especially in the long term.

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Open Options is a product of the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium. These materials are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. The following acknowledgment is requested on materials which are reproduced: Developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Portland, Oregon.
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