OS Developers Care About Competition: The Case of LaTeX

The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX
Image via Wikipedia

Developed over three decades, the open source LaTeX typesetting software came into competition with a variety of open source and proprietary alternatives. This case study shows that OS developers are concerned about users’ needs and this motivates them to attract users by competing with proprietary software in terms of usability.

The main lessons of the case study are summarized as follows:

Lesson 1: OS developers that are motivated, at least in part, by the popularity of their software see competition from proprietary software as a stir for the development of features they would otherwise find useless. Competition encourages developers to participate in collective development, to make their software accessible, to promote it actively and to respond to users’ needs and queries.

Lesson 2: Institutionalized tight control by relatively closed development teams and the conservative influence of established users combine to make changes in OSS difficult. This is not all for the worse, as it promotes stability and continuity in development. However, this slows down the response to technological shocks (new standards, new concepts).

Faced with the resulting obsolescence of their software, developers find it difficult to agree on needed changes because any change threatens at least some users or can weaken the influence of at least one development group.This leads to dissensions so that development coherence is threatened. Inertia in the development of OSS leads to the fragmentation of its user base and of its development groups. Developers start independent projects and each project attracts a part of the existing user base.

Lesson 3: Proprietary developers take advantage of a certain amount of inertia in OS development to offer their own solutions to the problems faced by the OS community. Unimpeded by a responsibility to established users and motivated by profits, proprietary developers offer their own private “OS solutions”, targeted at those users who are outside of the area of interest of OS developers. In doing so, they patch OS deficiencies and help make OSS more accessible.

Lesson 4: OS developers catch up with proprietary solutions that use OSS. Proprietary leadership encourages them to develop missing applications, develop compatibility with newly established standards and make OSS more accessible to the end user. Proprietary developers then face a choice between using OS code and building a fragile lead over OSS developers or incurring high development costs by developing software independently and establishing their own user base.

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