Thursday 3 May 2007

Can Open Source Sweeten the lemon out of the market?

I just came across a very interesting article here comparing computer security products (hardware and software) to 'Lemon markets' and it rang bells all around the place. Now I didn't know a lemon market from a lemon meringue before it prompted me to go and read up, but by God those bells have gotten louder and louder.

For those in a similar position to myself, allow me to describe, as concisely as I can (or at least quote from the venerable Wikipedia), what a lemon market is, why I find it particularly interesting, and why Open Source software may well help to sweeten the taste.

/* Quote

The paper by Akerlof describes how the interaction between quality heterogeneity and asymmetrical information can lead to the disappearance of a market where guarantees are indefinite. In this model, as quality is indistinguishable beforehand by the buyer (due to the asymmetry of information), incentives exist for the seller to pass off a low-quality good as a higher-quality one.

*/ Unquote

Currently my day job is in a biggish hospital (well, biggish by Irish standards anyway). Buying decisions in this environment are led more by end users than in any other industry I've worked in - particularly in the health-specific areas - clinical, nursing laboratory, etc. While I and my colleagues in IT have a degree of input, the primary decision makers are the end users. Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining. I happen to think that's the right way to do it. However it is not uncommon for a clinician to return from a conference with a CD under the arm for the latest 'fantastic' app written in MS Access by a couple of guys in their spare time. That makes for a classic lemon market. The end users making the decisions have no idea what software quality is, how it is achieved or how it is measured. The vendors do. Therein lies asymmetric information, and an explanation why sometimes poor software in Healthcare always seems to cost so much. I've used healthcare here as an example because I know a little about the current situation, but I believe this principle applies to software generally.

And the cost helps to perpetuate the lemony smell. There are a number of ways to estimate the quality of software, none of which are perfect. Comparison with a specification doesn't say much about quality. Conformance to quality processes (ISO, CMM etc) is better but really says only that a vendor is capable of a certain level of quality. The fallback is always reputation and reference. Go and talk to existing customers and hear what they have to say about the product. But with many software systems in the healthcare arena costing several hundreds of thousands (euros, dollars, whatever) or more, how many organisations are going to be totally honest about buying a lemon.

Can Open Source help? Perhaps it can. Having access to code (and related artifacts) means that adherence and not just conformance to quality processes can actually be measured, in many instances by automated processes (an example I recently came across directed at open source projects is here and other examples here and here).

There is plenty of scope to extend this model. If test scripts and records are included in the source repository then the degree to which (serious) unit, regression and system testing is performed can be measured, and speaking as a developer who has worked in and with a number of software houses, that would be a metric that would sort the men from the boys.

Open source competition in healthcare is still maturing. Arguably led by the WorldVista project originally developed by the VA healthcare organisation in the States, the open source market in this traditionally conservative sector is stable but still has some growing to do before putting pressure on closed-source vendors. I for one will do what I can to help it along.

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