Why isn’t Obsidian Open Source?

Many people have expressed concerns on the closed source development of the Obsidian application. Obsidian is a wonderful application used by people all over the world, and the concern is understandable. Why isn’t Obsidian open source?

Why do we care?

One of the core ideas behind Obsidian is the open format of the application. Obsidian uses markdown both in the app and behind the scenes, which means that you’re never tied to the app itself: you could open your Obsidian Vault in any application that supports plain text or markdown. Obsidian adds lots of bells and whistles on top of that format, but in theory you could open your vault in any text editor.

That’s important, because applications die all the time. For example, the Atom text editor recently was retired, after it was purchased by Microsoft.

But Atom is an Open Source text editor, which means technically the community could carry on the development on their own. And downloads will continue to be available as long as Github is around. It gives people a sense of control that is lacking in close-sourced applications, and I think that’s why there’s concern surrounding this aspect of Obsidian.

Additionally, it’s harder to trust the privacy of a closed source application. Since we can’t see the code, we don’t really know whether Obsidian is secretly logging any of our data. They have a privacy policy that says they don’t, but there’s no way to be absolutely certain (short of using Obsidian on a computer with no internet connection)

What does Obsidian say about it?

One of the developers, referred to as Silver, has specifically addressed these concerns. His overall points were these:

  1. Open source doesn’t guarantee safety without specific (and expensive) third party audits.
  2. Open source doesn’t mean faster development. Code review often takes longer than development.
  3. Open source projects don’t last forever.
  4. Open source requires a lot of extra effort, and the developers would rather put that effort into the app itself.

In essence, the developers aren’t interested in maintaining an open source repository. They’d rather focus on making the app as good as possible.

They have a point: I’ve maintained a few open source repositories myself, and it does take a lot of time. Many organizations have dedicated developers whose only job is take care of pull requests and process issues.

They also want to be able to support their families by making money through the Obsidian application, which could be more difficult in an open source environment.

What about privacy?

Obsidian published a privacy statement in response to the concerns about privacy. It’s minimal, but it makes the point that Obsidian is fully functional without an internet connection, and you are able to disable all internet connections within the app if you so desire. It may not be possible to ensure 100% privacy, but this is a solid stance for a small team.

Are there open source alternatives to Obsidian?

There are many similar applications in the Open Source realm. So if you are concerned about the closed-source nature of Obsidian, there are many other options. For example:

  • Logseq. Big community, open source. But not many plugins.
  • Zettlr. Small but active community. Good feature set, but no plugins, and not a very pretty app.
  • Foam. Very much still in beta, and based on VS Code. It’s open source, but you also have to trust VS Code in this case, which is only partially open source (and made by Microsoft).

These are some of the best options I’ve found, but they have some major downsides: the communities are much smaller, and they don’t have the same set of robust plugins that Obsidian has. They look great for simple use-cases, but they aren’t as polished or robust as Obsidian.

Plugins really are one of Obsidian’s strongest features. If you haven’t tried community plugins yet, you can learn more here.

These apps all use Markdown behind the scenes though, so if you wanted to switch, you could do so at any time with minimal effort. Obsidian is no Evernote: it is built on an open format, and it doesn’t lock you into their tool. You can switch away at any time with little fuss or mess.

Personally, I think as long as the Obsidian team continues to act transparently and in good faith, I choose to trust them. However, if they ever break my trust, I will be the first to search for and use alternatives.

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