Open Source Software and Avoiding Feature Bloat

In a recent OpenForce blog entry, Zack Urlocker makes a couple of interesting observations about open source software complexity, ease of use, and features:

“It used to be that to go open source meant making trade-offs. For example, Open Office still never quite does as good a job as Microsoft Office. But when you get to the On Demand systems, I would argue that the open source systems are in many ways better than the traditional closed source on-site systems: Less complexity, better user interface, easier to use. That may not necessarily be due to the free availability of the source code, but more in the spirit of open source that focuses on the basics, not all the bells and whistles. And why is that? Because open source developers shouldn’t be caught up in adding every feature under the sun in order to justify an annual upgrades.” (Zach Urlocker)

Zack makes a great point about how “open source developers shouldn’t be caught up in adding every feature under the sun”. Open source software seems to be better at figuring out which features are really needed by most people and not getting into the trap of trying to satisfy every need that a potential customer might someday have. Too many proprietary companies end up with bloatware because they try to provide too many features.

By providing the source code, open source software often avoids feature bloat. The source code gives a customer with a specific need the flexibility to add a feature. In some cases, projects nurture open source sub-communities who serve this purpose. Firefox, for example, has a robust community of developers who write extensions and themes that people can use to enhance Firefox with a flexible set of additional features. By providing these separately, Firefox avoids becoming too bloated with infrequently used features.

It boils down to this. When considering feature bloat, open source software has an advantage over proprietary software because the source code provides more flexibility to the user community. Users can choose to add features and functionality as needed without relying on a vendor to satisfy their every need.