What exactly is a cost associated with an open source library? When is it not free? I’ll compare this with buying a library from a component vendor, such as DevExpress, the company I work for.
For a kick-off, an open source library certainly does seem to be free: you go to the library’s page on GitHub, and you clone it onto your machine. Done. No cash changes hands.
Now the issue is that you can’t just leave it as a set of files in some folder, you have to use it. You have to read its documentation (if there is any), learn its API and quirks. You have to incorporate it into your web page or application. You might have to change the HTML and CSS (the blog theme that kicked all these musings off cost $20, so essentially free, and yes I had to change markup to use it). All of this takes time and resources, and – hidden somewhat – money. Your time is not free, by any means. However, I’ll agree that, if you bought an equivalent product – with proper documentation, demos, updates, support, and what have you – you’d have to do this anyway. So let’s call it quits on that score.
At this point, something goes wrong. You encounter a bug. After making sure you are properly using the library and doing some debugging, you ascertain that it’s within the library, much as I did with jQuery Widow Fix. I had valid markup but the library was modifying it to make it invalid.
In my case, I could fix my immediate problem relatively easily: just change the markup in some hundred blog posts where the bug appeared. Gee thanks, the cost of using this library – and hence the theme – just went up drastically. I would have to spend quite a bit of time – therefore, money – to do this. How much is your time worth? Alternately, since the bug was easily reproducible in a test case (five minutes work, tops), I could have notified the owner of the library.
In fact, whether you are using a commercial library or an open source library, that is my recommendation. Create a simple test case – in my experience having worked for two component vendors, bugs can pretty much always be reproduced in a simple test case: the bug is due to some oversight in how the library might be used, or the library is being used in a way not foreseen by the developers – and send it off. This is when the difference between paid-for versus open source really comes into play. The commercial player has a big incentive to fix the issue as soon as possible; after all, you have just provided a simple test case for a visible issue. And, unless the fix is going to result in some major refactoring of the product’s code, that is what will happen. Indeed, that is your expectation having paid for the product. You will get a hot fix or a workaround pretty quickly and will be able to continue your development. As a bonus, if the vendor team has any nous at all, they will put your test case in their test suite, so your issue will never be seen again.
For my particular case, there was no contest: the Widow library was so clumsily written that there were several distinct ways it could break your markup. The bug was first reported four years ago and is still not fixed. Reading the replies on the issue page, I see the owner basically has no idea how to proceed. Looking at the way the code was written, it’s my opinion it’s going to involve refactoring it to use some kind of semi-intelligent parser or (worse?) regex. And that will blow the current couple of dozen lines in the library to a hundred or more. Sure, parsing is something I have some knowledge of, but I’m not that enamored of the library’s functionality that I have to have it at all costs. So, I’ll take option three: discard it.
If however, you really need the functionality and there’s no similar library around, it’s time to expend effort in fixing it yourself. Read the code, work out a possible fix, test it with your test case. If everything’s good, issue a pull request and continue using your fix until the library owner merges your PR. But it still requires effort and time and money to do, all for an ostensibly free product.
In summary then, although open source software is supposedly free, there are costs associated with that library: learning, debugging issues, devising workarounds, writing pull requests, and so on. Agreed that some of those might never occur – I’ve never hit a problem with jQuery in my work, for example – but they could. And that’s where the inevitable costs come in.
[It’s at this point that I finished my draft of this post, but on rereading it, it struck me that I could be a little more forceful. Let me put it like this: the software you and I write depends for its success on code that other people like ourselves write for us. Sometimes we pay for that software in cold hard cash, but sometimes we pay for it in other ways. And I’d say using open source means paying for it in those less visible ways: if you are going to use an open source library in your code, assume “ownership” of it; debug issues and come up with workarounds or fixes; publish pull requests. If the owner is unresponsive, fork it and make it yours. Even better, support those open source libraries by answering questions on StackOverflow (I regularly answer questions on SO on the open source charting library Flot, even given that DevExpress provides a competitive one in DevExtreme). In short, invest in the open source library by investing time in using and fixing it.
Back in June 2015, I got my (replacement) CST-01, “the world’s thinnest watch”. I wrote about it at the time , mainly because of the stupendous crash-and-burn that the Kickstarter for it turned out to be. The watch is a lovely thing, to be sure. Well, I am sorry to report that, this weekend, after just 14 months of ownership, recharging every five to six weeks or so, the battery has now completely died. The watch only works if it’s plugged into the power charger. Unplug it, and the watch just shows...READ MORE
Waaaay back when (yes, it was eight years ago, an eternity in software development), I wrote a post on my old blog about using “ Code from the Internet ”. In those days, for me and my readers that meant finding some C# code from some blog post somewhere out there written by some Joe Blow and using it in your own app. These days however, if you’re doing any kind of web development, you’re going to be pretty well using a whole bunch of code from the internet, and in general from that internet outpost...READ MORE
A while back, well after I’d purchased the current theme for this blog , I ran across another great responsive theme on someone else’s blog (unfortunately I never made a note of whose it was, so can’t credit them). The theme is called Selfy and I’d have to say it’s pretty clean and simple. So I bought it in order that I could change the admittedly awful self-designed theme on my old blog. I’m no designer is all I will say. OK, fine, the old theme was rank, and I don’t want to talk about it. Really...READ MORE
Before we went away last week to Belgium, I was reading about a technique for removing people from your photos using Photoshop . I think I’d heard or read about it before way back when but had never really investigated the technique properly. This time though, I delved in deeper to see if I could do it myself. I suppose it was prompted by this short video that takes the technique to an extreme (notice how the shots with just the protagonist and no crowds are stationary/static so the technique can...READ MORE
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – OK, it was in London in 1993 – I added a DateEaster function to my personal Dates unit, written in Borland Pascal 7. So: 16-bit DOS for all you oldies. For a bit of fun, I shall present it here with some commentary. At the time I was really proud of this unit: the majority of it was written in assembly for speed reasons (it was used in a swaps trading app I was writing) and it could calculate things like days between two dates (including on a 360-day basis...READ MORE
Back in January , I pulled the trigger on a new theme for this blog. I recognized some time ago that I am not a very good web designer (I can do small tweaks to CSS but not comprehensive composition) and it would be far better to buy something that’s well designed and then spend the time wrapping the output from the blog engine to this new look and feel. And that, pretty much, is what happened. I bought a professionally designed theme (making sure it was responsive), and hacked away at the templates...READ MORE
In a week where I am about to tread the boards again for the first time in over a year, my sister was sorting out some of our parents’ documents, found this page and scanned/sent it to me this morning. It is nothing less than the “script” – if I may call it that – of what I had to learn as announcer (or perhaps, more accurately, narrator?) for a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that our school was putting on. The wrinkle is, we were living in France at the time so it’s in French. Even...READ MORE
A week or so ago, the SlySoft website was suddenly replaced by a terse announcement that “[d]ue to recent regulatory requirements we have had to cease all activities.” I’m willing to bet that most of my readers haven’t heard of SlySoft or their main product, AnyDVD. In essence, AnyDVD is an app that circumvents the DRM present in all DVDs and Blu-ray discs, at the driver level. There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to circumvent the region encoding used by DVDs, and this was the initial...READ MORE