The 5 Myths of Open Source – A Guide for The Non-Programmer

This is the second of a series of three discussing open source software for non-programmers interested in informatics.

A previous post discusses what you can expect from a software project when it is “open source.” However, the concept of OS is not so clear cut.

This post aims to clarify five commonly held beliefs about open source.

Myth #1: Open Source Costs No Money

Open source software share this problem with freeware and “freemium” cloud-based services. While obtaining and using open source software is free, owning it is not necessarily.

While open-source software may come with a free-to-use license, the total cost of ownership requires that you budget money for support and maintenance. You may need help implementing the software for your organization’s specific hardware. You may also need support and maintenance.

Which brings us to #2…

Myth #2: Open Source Is Non-Profit

In Part 1 we talked about free as in beer and free as in speech.

As mentioned in Myth #1, the cost of actually implementing and maintaining extends beyond the actual licensure, creating an unfulfilled need.

Here are some business models surrounding open source software.

Companies may offer open-source program for free but allow you to contract with them for professional servicing and maintenance of the assembly. For instance, a website building service may install a host of open source software (e.g. a LAMP stack ) on the client’s server hardware and run a website using WordPress.

A company may release an OS version of their software and also license the same software under a proprietary version. This is called dual-licensing.

Alternatively, a company may take its (or someone else’s) open source software and create a more feature-complete, proprietary version for sale.

Myth #3: Open Source Is Insecure

It might be easy to draw parallel between open source and Wikipedia. After all, Wikipedia may be thought of as the world’s biggest open source encyclopedia.

At least in its early days, people worry about Wikipedia because anything can be added to Wikipedia, true or otherwise.

Most OS projects don’t have the whole world contributing. Some groups control the source code more tightly than others, as code contributions can range from useful features, bug fixes, to malicious code.

It would not be uncommon for an open source project to accept contribution from only a handful of programmers.

For projects that do have a massive number of contributors (Linux has more than 12,000), security also do not seem to be a big problem, as the code is closely vetted before adding to the distribution.

[Tweet “Myths are laced with reality, and open source is laced with myths. The 5 myths of open source.”]

Myth #4: Open Source Is Lower Quality

This report shows that open source software is not necessary better or worse. It depends.

OS code tends to be higher quality than proprietary competitors provided that the size of the project is relatively small.

For large software, the report finds that proprietary software is less error-prone.

Side Note – How Big is 1 Million Lines?

Here are highlights based on this beautiful infographic:

  1. iPhone app: ~50,000 lines
  2. War and Peace: ~90,000 lines
  3. Age of Empires Online (video game): 1 million lines
  4. Linux Kernel 2.0: 2 million lines
  5. Google Chrome: 6-8 million lines
  6. MySQL: 12 million lines
  7. Windows 7: 40 million lines
  8. Mac OS X “Tiger” 85 million lines
  9. The Human Genome: 3.3 billion base pairs

One million lines of code is significant but in the grand scheme of things, not an astronomical amount.

Myth #5: Open Source Software Volunteers-Driven

An academic abstract that includes “open source” software is often taken to mean that the creators aim to contribute the software to the community.  Although this is frequently true in academia, there are many, many exceptions.

Some of the most successful OS software is in fact fueled entirely by experts volunteering their time. For example, when Linus Torvalds created Linux, he did so as a hobby, “I’m doing a a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu).”

However, OS also can be a deliberate commercial strategy.

Examples of open source software maintained by bright, professional developers:

  1. MySQL (Oracle)
  2. Ubuntu Linux (Canonical)
  3. Chrome (Google)
  4. Android Open Source Project (Google)
  5. Darwin (Apple Inc)
  6. WordPress (


Myths are laced with reality, and open source is laced with myths. Many of them are not necessarily wrong, but they do deserve a more thorough discussion.  Understanding the half-truths surrounding OS can inform your own decision around choosing and taking advantage of this wonder form of software licensing.

Next Up…

Are you the clinical visionary of an open source project in radiology? Find out how to add value to your team even if you are not doing the hardcore programming.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

2 responses to “The 5 Myths of Open Source – A Guide for The Non-Programmer

  1. Pingback: What Is Open-Source? A Guide for The Non-Programmer | Figure Stuff Out

  2. Pingback: Opening Up – Adding Value to Your Open Source Project | Figure Stuff Out

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