Open source may significantly change the technology marketplace. As technology consumers schools can be change agents or change victims. Choosing open source doesn't guarantee either possibility. Educators are affecting the future of open source by what software they buy and download, and by what they use with and offer to students. The choices educators make today will affect the choices they have tomorrow. They should make conscious, informed choices about:
The debate will become increasingly visible. Schools are only part of the software market and have limited influence. However, today's students are tomorrow's software consumers. So proprietary and open source companies are eager to befriend schools. Some proprietary software companies are offering educators low or no-cost licenses on some of their products. Analyst Rob Enderle explains: "Both Microsoft and Sun are trying to keep education from going to Linux, and from developing more programmers and potential customers for that platform." (Olsen, 2003) Educators should ask their preferred vendors about their positions and plans regarding open source software.
Schools need proprietary software to use some third-party programs.
Third-party programs are specific examples of opportunity cost. In education, third-party programs include stand-alone education software and add-ons to popular software. Many education markets are small, so software companies may only be able to afford developing for one operating system or program. Some companies may prefer to develop for open source environments, and some companies and community projects are targetting the open source market. However, the education software industry will probably continue to target the Microsoft Windows market for at least the near future, because it's the largest market. See also: Software for schools
Software should be a commodity.
Some open source proponents want software to be a commodity. Commodities are interchangeable resources without monolithic brand names or unique features. From the operating system up, most open source software is highly modular and "commoditized." Proponents criticize proprietary software for not being modular. They acuse some companies of trying to "de-commoditize" software. Such companies allegedly try to monopolize a market by designing their software to be indispensible. This can stifle competitive service. If solutions are proprietary and interdependent, the only people who can offer service are those who learn the secrets and know all the programs. If users find a better component (e.g. a cheaper, faster, or more affordable program), they can't swap it in because the existing program isn't a commodity.
Commodities are usually better for the consumer. For example, disposable batteries are a commodity. Despite the variety of brand names, batteries come in very specific types, designated AA, AAA, C, etc. In a specific flashlight, one brand might last longer than another. The user can find the best brand without buying a new flashlight because batteries are a commodity.
Ideally, if a company designs all aspects of a solution it should be the best possible solution. Quality and service should be associated with brand names but too often they aren't. When a market shifts to commodities consumers don't have to trust a brand name and may enjoy more competitive service. Companies and brands come and go but services exist as long as there is demand for them.
The debate over software as a commodity is fairly remote from schools. Educators may not have the flexibility, selection, or budget to let this be a significant criterion in their decisions. But when possible schools should choose open formats, consider modular programs, and avoid lock in.
Proprietary formats lead to vendor lock in.
Lock in occurs when a user becomes dependent on a specific program from a specific vendor. Such a program is the opposite of a commodity. The program may not be modular enough to be replaced, or the user may have valuable data or other content stored in the program's proprietary format. When the program is indispensible or the data can't be migrated, the user is locked in to using that program forever.
Schools typically build new solutions on existing solutions. For example, a school may build a new computer lab using current software, but want to retain an older lab with older software. If the school has curricula or data locked into the older software, it can only choose the newer version of the software. Open source forecloses on this danger by using open formats and open source code; lock in is nearly impossible with open source.
The competition among Web browsers illustrates the dangers of lock in on a much larger scale. Creating or hosting Web content with a proprietary solution sometimes restricts or denies access from another platform. For example, many Web page administrators assert that Microsoft FrontPage is notorious for creating "Web pages that work well under the latest version of Internet Explorer, but not as well under Netscape or other browsers." (Netmechanic, Browser) As the language of the Web, HTML is supposed to be an open format so that no single company can control the Web. Any single company may not make the best HTML editor, Web server software, and browser, so consumers may want separate programs. Some proprietary programs are expensive while free alternatives are available. If a proprietary program creates HTML skewed toward proprietary products (e.g. Frontpage and Explorer), better or less expensive software is excluded because it's less compatible and less reliable. Competition, innovation, and choice are stifled. Furthermore, "Since the US is the largest market for internet products... standards successfully imposed in the US become standards for the world." (Lessig, 1998)
Proprietary software leads to monopolies.
Open source proponents warn that proprietary software leads to monopolies through lock in and unfair business practices. They argue that proprietary companies can exclude competitors by tactics like embrace, extend, and extinguish. Consolidation may stiffle innovation and lock in hurts choice. Virtual monopolies have less pressure to innovate and little pressure to lower prices.
By comparison, the patents on pharmaceuticals have limited durations, so new proprietary drugs can eventually be replicated as generics. Consumers may depend on the drug, but when it becomes a generic commodity, prices drop. Consumers have more choice and may pay less. Some open source proponents want software to be like generic drugs. Proprietary software may have features or other value added, but the generic, open source software is a reasonable, thrify choice.
Some experts believe the personal computer is becoming a commodity. The strong competition between OEMs supports this view. As more users choose so-called "white boxes" (unbranded PCs), prices drop. However, proprietary software like Microsoft Windows and Office has a virtual monopoly in the PC market. The cost of the software determines the lowest possible price of a Microsoft Windows PC, and that cost is steady or rising. For example, new licensing/pricing plans may require regular subscription fees.
Table: Total minimum cost of a PC computer. According to open source proponents, proprietary software inhibits a market of inexpensive computers.
With a pervasive influence and virtual monopolies, Microsoft is a visible, relevant example of what open source tries to avoid. Open source is not necessarily anti-Microsoft. But Microsoft is clearly against open source, opposing the movement with public relations, business pressure, political influence, and pro-Microsoft research results. At the same time, open source proponents tout Linux and similar software as protection from any software monopoly. For example, activists Ralph Nader and James Love have challenged the US government to reconsider its dependence on Microsoft. They are troubled by Microsoft's history and plans, the potential savings of alternative solutions, and the security hazards of software "monoculture." (Nader & Love, 2002) Lawerence Lessig has similiar concerns about the future:
Imagine if General Motors could build the highway system such that GM trucks ran better on it than Ford trucks. Or think about the electrical grid. Imagine if a Sony TV worked better on it than a Panasonic TV. The highway and electricity grids are all neutral platforms -- a common standard that everyone builds on top of. That's an extraordinarily important feature for networks to have. (BusinessWeek, 2002)
Microsoft's plans for .NET, Web services, Palladium, and similiar solutions may offer new convenience and power. However, these innovations may also create lock in or other unforeseen dangers for the whole Internet. Microsoft's previous business and design practices with Explorer and HTML hint at the magnitude of this potential danger.
This debate may be fairly remote from schools. Many schools have deliberately migrated to a software monoculture (e.g. by standardizing on Microsoft Windows) or may not be able to migrate away from one. Schools may find significant advantages from the Web services model Microsoft has proposed. Educators should still be aware of these issues, since companies may not be acting in the best interests of schools.
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