COVID 19 – A real test for Open-Source

Reading that the Singapore government have released their nascent Coronavirus encounter app to open-source and that initiatives are underway in Europe to address the resultant security issues raised, got me thinking.  We can assume that the intention of this release is to increase market acceptance and eventual universality for the app to increase its impact in combatting the current crisis but is this a wise move?

We know that commercially developed apps come to market quickly, sometimes too quickly, in order to beat the competition and optimise the financial investment of their authors, resulting in very targeted functionality but high cost and maybe less than perfect reliability.  Conversely, we’ve all been aware of the sometimes painfully slow take up of open-source solutions based on a lack of clear marketing and engagement with business, committee based development inertia and reliance on a tech-first acceptance model.  These opposing pros and cons of the two strategies present users, in this case governments and society, with an apparent, if rather opaque choice.

So will the open-source community rise to the challenge of developing an app in commercial time frames with all the benefits associated with the amount of goodwill, talent, resource and effort available?  I believe that this challenge is a real test of open-source development maturity and will require something that we’ve rarely seen in this field to date.  That is, single minded, driven, management of an open-source project with all the good attributes of both traditional proprietary and modern collaborative methods to create a solution which quickly monopolises the market but delivers functionality and data fit to combat the crisis driven requirements.

It is my opinion that whoever pulls this off will have established a model for much future development. Necessity, being the mother of invention, will force a change in the market, remove the chasm between the two methodologies and ultimately benefit the whole industry.

Maybe the question is “Who?”

A bit of background

My career has primarily revolved around developing solutions for organisations to meet imperative business requirements, solutions composed of hardware, software and services, often containing both commercially and open-source developed components.  I have had product management responsibility for open-source and proprietary software solutions and the scars to prove it!  Both have their pros and cons.  Briefly, proprietary solutions come with clear core functionality, a single butt to kick, can usually be customised if you have deep pockets but can have a large price tag, variable quality beyond the core, a limited flexibility around bugs and a product roadmap which may or may not align with your business. Conversely, open-source software has no single owner* to hold responsible but is eminently flexible if you are prepared to contribute to the development in some way, huge bandwidth in terms of fail and fix cycles and peer sourced quality assurance but, and here is the big “but” a differently perceived roadmap for everyone involved, meaning development via committee and internal competition for functionality.

In summary, proprietary solutions are brought to market quickly to ensure the commercial viability of their authors, they may have functionality gaps and issues but a contract exists through which these can be addressed whereas open-source solutions are always promising more in the next release making the point of adoption difficult to ascertain and market acceptance more difficult.  It is easy to see the market leaders in traditional software markets but less so in open-source, with multiple commercial variants of a single solution, hampering its adoption. The choice is based on where the point of competition exists, effectively a market internal or external to the developer community.

So why might open-source be anything but good news for this COVID-19 inspired solution? Surely more eyes, more hands and more brainpower applied to the problem is a good thing? Surely fewer competing solutions makes for more convergence and improved resulting data?  My gut instinct, as suggested at the start of this article is that the open-source approach suggested is a good one, BUT I HAVE MY RESERVATIONS when it comes to bringing the solution to market. Who will drive adoption without the pangs of hunger experienced by those entrepreneurs who now represent the behemoths of our digital world?

Will the open-source community put time imperatives before internal design wrangling?  Will the Appstore approach most likely adopted drive the behaviour of the development community in a direction ultimately aimed at world domination?

Martin Crack, Associate Partner.

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