The End of the Open Scare

by Sebastian Benthall

The New York Times published an uplifting article this week about R, a free software environment for statistical computing that was a side project of two academics that is now used extensively at places like Google and Pfizer. It’s a great read right up to the slam by the proprietary competitor that is so typical it may just have been included in the spirit of satire:

The popularity of R at universities could threaten SAS Institute, the privately held business software company that specializes in data analysis software. SAS, with more than $2 billion in annual revenue, has been the preferred tool of scholars and corporate managers.

SAS says it has noticed R’s rising popularity at universities, despite educational discounts on its own software, but it dismisses the technology as being of interest to a limited set of people working on very hard tasks.

“I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code,” said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

But while SAS plays down R’s corporate appeal, companies like Google and Pfizer say they use the software for just about anything they can.

The comment by Milley would annoy me if the rest of the article didn’t make it look so ridiculous. As a whole, the article evidences that mainstream media “gets” open source software and that proprietary software company’s old marketing tactic of insisting that free software is inherently unreliable is becoming less effective.

The evolved version of this argument attacks free software for its unreliable support, as opposed to its inherent reliability. This is the case ESRI’s Jack Dangermond made and which Paul Ramsey so aptly deconstructed in December. But articles like the NYT expose the flimsiness and desperation of these arguments in the face of a rising tide of enterprise-level, supported open source software. Maybe soon proprietary companies will stop calling free software names.