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Some Thoughts on Freeware in Chemometrics

Feb 6, 2008

Once again there is a discussion on the chemometrics listserv (ICS-L) concerning freeware in chemometrics. There have been some good comments, and its certainly nice to see some activity on the list! I’ll add my thoughts here.

On Feb 5, 2008, at 3:39 PM, David Lee Duewer wrote:
I and the others in Kowlski’s Koven built ARTHUR as part of our PhuDs; it was distributed for a time as freeware. It eventually became semi-commercial as a community of users developed who wanted/needed help and advice. Likewise, Barry’s first PLS_Toolbox was his thesis and was (maybe still is?) freeware.

No, its not freeware, but it is still open source. One of my pet-peeves is that “freeware” and “open-source” are often used synonymously, but they aren’t the same thing.

PLS_Toolbox is open source, so you can see exactly what its doing (no secret, hidden meta-parameters), and you can modify it for your own uses. (Please don’t ask us to help you debug your modified code, though!) You can also compile PLS_Toolbox into other applications IFF (if and only if) you have a license from us for doing so. And of course PLS_Toolbox is supported, regularly updated, etc. etc. If something doesn’t work as advertised, you can complain to us and we’ll fix it, pronto.

I think we occupy a sweet spot between the free but unsupported (must rely on the good will of others) model and the commercial but closed source (not always sure what its doing and can’t modify it) model.

OK, end of commercial!

But the problem with freeware projects is that there have to be enough people involved in a quite coordinated way in order to reach the critical mass required to make a product that is very sophisticated. Yes, its possible for a single person or a few people to make a bunch of useful routines (e.g. PLS_Toolbox 1.4, ca 1994). But a fully gui-fied tool that does more than a couple things is another story. PLS_Toolbox takes several man-years per year to keep it supported, maintained and moving forward. And if it wasn’t based on MATLAB, it would be considerably more.

On Feb 5, 2008, at 4:17 PM, Scott Ramos wrote:
… the vast majority of folk doing chemometrics fall into Dave’s category of tool-users. This is the audience that the commercial developers address. Participants in this discussion list fall mostly into the tool-builder category. Thus, the discussion around free or shareware packages and tools is focused more on this niche of chemometricians.

And that’s the problem. Like it or not, chemometrics is a bit of niche market. So whether you can get enough people together to make freeware that is commercial-worthy, that tool-users are willing to rely on, is going to be even tougher than for other, broader markets. The most successful opensource/freeware projects that I’m aware of are tools for software developers themselves: tools by software geeks for software geeks. Tools for CVS are a great example of this (like the copy of svnX that I use, and hey, WordPress, which I’m using to write this blog).

MATLAB is interesting in that it occupies a middle ground, it is both a development environment and an end-user tool. You can pretty much say the same for PLS_Toolbox.

On Feb 5, 2008, at 2:32 PM, Rick Dempster wrote:
I was taught not to reinvent the wheel many years ago and that point seems to have stuck with me.

That’s good practice. But it seems to me that a substantial fraction of the freeware effort out there really is just reinventing things that exist elsewhere. The most obvious example is Octave, which is a MATLAB clone. I notice that most of the freeware proponents out there have .edu and .org email addresses, and likely don’t have the same perspective as most of us .com folks do on what its worth doing ourselves versus paying for. And they might get credit in the academic world for recreating a commercial product as freeware:

On Feb 5, 2008, at 2:50 PM, Thaden, John J wrote:
…but I can’t help dreaming of creating solutions to my problems that I can also share with communities facing similar problems — part of this is more than a dream, it’s the publish-or-perish dictum of academia…

Isn’t that what Octave is really all about? At this point it is just starting to get to the functionality of the MATLAB 5.x series (from ~10 years ago?). This is pretty obvious if you read Bjørn K. Alsberg and Ole Jacob Hagen, “How octave can replace MATLAB in chemometrics“, ChemoLab, Volume 84, pps 195-200, 2006. I’d like Octave to succeed, heck, we could probably charge more for PLS_Toolbox if people didn’t have to pay for MATLAB too. But at this point using Octave would be like writing with charcoal from my fireplace because I didn’t want to pay for pencils. The decrease in productivity wouldn’t make up for the cost savings on software. I don’t know about some of the other freeware/opensource packages discussed, such as R, but one should think hard about cost/productivity trade-offs before launching into a project with them.

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