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I suspect that that many companies don’t publish their source code not because they’re against the idea of it, but because they’re ashamed of the quality. Publishing the source – either as open source of ‘source available’ – will mean showing your entire customer base what a bloody mess it is.

With a closed code base, you can fix most issues “silently” without too many customers noticing there was actually a really embarrassing bug or security issue. You can’t really do this with open source software. Got an embarrassing bug because of unprofessional and careless programming? Everyone can see.

This is a rather sorry state of things, but unfortunately a lot of software just plain ol’ sucks. Is there open source software that sucks? Sure. But at least it forces programmers to be honest about it.

Here’s Dennis Ritchie’s comments on the BUGS section in Unix man pages:

Our habit of trying to document bugs and limitations visibly was enormously useful to the system. As we put out each edition, the presence of these sections shamed us into fixing innumerable things rather than exhibiting them in public. I remember clearly adding or editing many of these sections, then saying to myself “I can’t write this,” and fixing the code instead.

Eric S. Raymond made similar observations in The Art of Unix Programming:

Unix manual pages traditionally have a section called BUGS. In other cultures, technical writers try to make the product look good by omitting and skating over known bugs. In the Unix culture, peers describe the known shortcomings of their software to each other in unsparing detail, and users consider a short but informative BUGS section to be an encouraging sign of quality work. Commercial Unix distributions that have broken this convention, either by suppressing the BUGS section or euphemizing it to a softer tag like LIMITATIONS or ISSUES or APPLICATION USAGE, have invariably fallen into decline.

A public issue tracker is the modern variant of maintaining a BUGS section in the manpage.

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