The Lifespan of Software

Rumors of Chandler’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated. So says the renowned Phillip J. Eby.

In light of all the damning media scrutiny paid to Chandler in recent years, Phillip makes an excellent point: the project funded work on a bunch of important open source python libraries. I didn’t realize this—it drastically changed my regard for the OSAF‘s work. If this aspect of the project got mentioned more, I think Chandler would get a lot more respect. Even if Chandler 1.0 never sees the light of day, it’s already made major contributions to the python community.

Proprietary software has a definite lifespan: once a company has stopped developing and supporting it, that’s the end. For the company, value is localized and non-transferable in the closed source code base. The business model of selling software depends on this. Once the company kills off the product, the value more or less disappears. You can still use it, of course, but it will decrease in value as similar, hopefully better products appear on the market.

The value of open source software, on the other hand, isn’t limited to its immediate use. Even if an application is no longer actively used and maintained, the code can spark ideas, be used to fork a new project, serve as a lesson in design, etc. Its value can be perpetually renewed by virtue of the fact that it circulates in different ways. If it’s large enough, like Chandler or Zope, it can spawn mini-projects, components, and libraries for reuse.

Years ago, I wrote a Java version of a napster server. Just for fun. It was called jnerve, and I released the code as open source. I tried to get people to host it and use it, but opennap, the C implementation, was naturally faster, more efficient, and more mature. jnerve seemed like a dead end, so I stopped working on it. There were some cool architectural bits to it that were interesting to write, but I regarded the project as a failure.

Months later at a conference, I got a demo CD of some new peer-to-peer file sharing software. (“P2P” was all the rage then.) When I ran it, I was astounded to see a copyright message with my name on it. They had used my code as the basis for their commercial product! The code was able to live on in a different form. I’m not sure it was actually legal, given that jnerve was GPL, but I didn’t care enough to pursue the matter.

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