Too much choice in Open Source software

www.ted.comI watched a fascinating lecture on the Internet today ( The speaker gave a talk on the misconceptions of: choice and happiness. I found this extremely interesting and relative to how open source works. In a capitalistic choice driven society like the United States (my home) it feels almost sacrilegious to say. It is however, true. Let’s delve further into it.

What software can you say people are truly happen with in open source? Without a doubt I would say: Firefox, MySQL, and Apache. Let’s look at why. Of the top of your head, what are your choices? Not many. I’m sure you’re probably thinking “What’s that browser’s name?” for a second referring to Opera or “I heard I can run a lighter webserver” referring to Lighttpd. Fact of the matter is more often than not it’s either Firefox (or a perversion of it like Swiftfox packaged with some Linux distros) or you Operating system default such as Internet Explorer or Safari. PostgresQL is a choice to MySQL but who offers anything else? There are tons more but as long as you don’t think about those you’re happy in your MySQL world.

“Why is this good?” you may ask. My answer is simple but don’t stop reading after I answer, there’s more. It keeps programmers focused in the right directions.

I’m sure that caused a flood of emotions from many people that write code for many projects but here’s why not to. Let’s look at the faulty areas in open source that could be filled. In video production there are so many projects going in totally different directions but not solving the problem because they’re trying to pull a 500 pound weight in 10 directions at the same time. Percentage wise more programmers are focusing on Firefox or Opera than any other browser. In general this pulls the browser’s technology in on general direction that isn’t diametrically opposed. The same is true of Apache and MySQL.

The problem makes itself shown in the enterprise more than for home users. At home it is not uncommon for everyone to like things totally different but for open source to catch up with the ERP giants like SAP and Peoplesoft they’ve got to narrow the choices and focus on a common goal. MySQL and Postgres learned this a long time ago. Oracle is the goal. Guess what’s happening now? MySQL’s version 5 has made more enterprise level programs find it worthy of being a choice for your infrastructure.

Let’s not just blame the programmers though, they’re confused by the choices as well. There’s C, C++, Ruby, PERL, Python, Java, and the list goes on. When open source started to grow there were only C, and C++ for the most part (ok, COBOL and Fortran were moderately big for those keeping score but I wasn’t alone in thinking their departure was coming).

Now, I’m not saying that Firefox is the greatest thing ever. Firefox crashes more than anything else on my wife’s Mac and even on my PC’s running Linux and Windows. The lesson to be learned though is that its getting there. It’s getting there because the weight of programmers that want to work on web browsers put their weight behind Firefox. This is good for everyone AND open source’s credibility.

I realized the depth of this concept in my personal life as well. After marrying my wife so many years ago I am still so very happy with my choice. We’ve been together for 19 years and I still very much enjoy her company and companionship. I acquire new female friends, some close and some distant. At times she may wonder about me choosing another because I have new “options.” The happiness comes in the fact that I have to get her to one day understand how my brain works. I can’t acquire new options (one of the only forms of focus in my brain) unless she tried to kill me of course. Limiting my own choices gives me happiness.

Open source benefactors take note from my observations. There will be many new languages that come along to sway your attention. When this happens don’t be easily swayed. Keep writing good software the way you know best. There will always be a new prettier or sexier project or language however what you have is tried and true.

This is not old dogmatic thinking because at it’s core all languages compile down to 1’s and 0’s. Just as all humans break down to the same DNA. It’s really what you do with those 1’s or 0’s or those 12 chromosomes that makes something richly enjoyable.

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