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Predicting the Future: Choose Software From Column A or Column B
Saturday, May 28 2005 @ 04:42 PM EDT

Here's a contrast in outlooks. First, we have Eben Moglen, who sees the future as going back to the beginnings of software development, when everything was open and free:

The lawyer for the Free Software Foundation said during a keynote at the LinuxWorld Summit that the IT world will return to a time before large businesses co-opted freely licensable software for proprietary products. . . .

But Moglen said the Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center he chairs are trying to return software to its glory days of shared development.

The lawyer, also a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School, said the time has come to again treat science like physics or chemistry, by promoting a free exchange of ideas the way Galileo Galilei proposed.

Then we have Steven Henry, who is also an attorney, who predicts the closing down of the FOSS faucet to a proprietary trickle. Open Source, he claims, is being coopted by business. They want to shut off the openness and instead hire some programmers to do "open source" coding.

No. Really. Don't laugh. That's what he said, that in the future "there will be little difference" between how proprietary and "open source" software will be developed.

Part of Groklaw's purpose has to be to kindly explain FOSS, so these business folks, and their lawyers, can make some progress, hopefully before they kill the Golden Goose. What Mr. Henry is proposing would kill the Golden Goose, that cash cow, Linux. Why? Let me simplify: Because the strength of Open Source is that it is open. I guess we'd better review some fundamentals. It's not "Open" Source unless it's . . . well, "open".

Here's his chilling forecast:

With the embrace of open-source by big business, cultural changes are coming along with the adoption. "Open-source is no longer a grass-roots movement. It has been co-opted," he said.

Because of this change, open-source software is no longer developed by communities using Eric Raymond`s bazaar model of development.

"The idea that a software community is there for all open-source projects is no longer true," said Henry. Instead, companies now employ developers to write open-source programs.

In these cases, "if a company that makes an open-source package abandons it, it's abandoned."

In five years, Henry predicted that open-source revenue will overcome the free software religion. "Linux might be the first, biggest and perhaps only major bazaar-style open-source development project to get traction in the commercial sector," he said.

In the future, open-source and proprietary programs will be competing on an even playing field and there will be little difference between how they will be developed, he said.

So, his vision of the future of Open Source is that it will have no future. Businesses will grab Linux, make a buck, and that's the end of that openness junk. I hate to burst his bubble, but businesses don't control Linux or Open Source or Free Software. Nothing they do will change that. Not now, not in five years, not ever.

It is so hard for proprietary companies and their lawyers to grok FOSS. It goes against all their trained habits. They see Linux is taking over the world, but they don't get why that happened, so their flat-footed plan is to carefully destroy what made Linux so wonderful in the first place.

Businesses that want certain features in Linux can cooperate, can hire folks to donate code, etc., but if they think that their contributions are what is making Linux or GNU/Linux hum, they are wrong. Businesses are jumping on a train that already left the station without them on board, and even now, they are passengers, not driving in the front car.

The quality of FOSS comes from two things businesses can't provide or arrange: Linux, to use it as the example, attracted many of the world's finest coders precisely because it is a meritocracy and because there is no schedule imposed from above on when code has to go out the door. It is ready when it's just right. That appeals to the artistic side of an engineer. It feels good to do quality work. And it feels good not to have to compromise due to marketing pressures. Coding for the fun of it results in a very different end result than coding for money.

I'm not saying there is no place for proprietary software. There may well be needed functionality no one feels like doing for love, or specialty funtions that no one happens to have done or wants to do. But I am saying that coding for love results in different code than hired code. It's like your mom cooking your favorite meal as opposed to eating out at a chain fast-food restaurant. Sometimes you feel like a Mac, but it can't hold a candle to Mom spending hours out of love to please you with just what you particularly like.

And second, because Linux is open to anyone to suggest or offer patches, the talent pool is beyond what any one company can afford to hire. New coders come along every year, so shutting the door at any point to that new talent is counterproductive.

Nothing can change either of those two factors. They are what they are. Folks who code for the sheer pleasure of it, to solve a problem, to make software do what they want, code differently than someone who is told what to code and how and when for a salary.

For those of you who imagine Microsoft could hire more programmers, or think that it's only 100 people doing all the heavy lifting, so who needs the rest, here's a word from Moglen:

Moglen said users who need software can find an abundance of code to use for software building in online machine tool shops, such as SourceForge. In that community, he said some 95,000 programming projects are being worked on by roughly 490,000 programmers in their spare time.

To gauge how productive SourceForge and the open source community can be, he created a metric where if one subtracts the amount of people at Microsoft who don't make software (those who sell products and other corporate cogs), SourceForge is currently equal to 1.35 Microsofts.

By the end of the decade, that figure would see SourceForge equal 3.7 of the Redmond software giants, he estimated.

I don't know why that is so hard for folks to grasp. The winning team is obvious now. But they keep trying to take Linux, as it is currently, now that it's a success, and euthanize it, so they can control it, put it in a box and sell it the old-fashioned way, like an iron or something.

Here's their first lesson: enterprise software licensing is a dying business. That link will take you to an article, "IT Execs to Vendors: Your Software Stinks", ironically showing an ad for Microsoft. Instead of trying to emulate a dying business model, do what is replacing it, like the rest of the world, GNU/Linux. Think about why Linux developed as it did. Hint: it wasn't run or controlled by any corporation. That was a feature, not a bug.

And no matter what business does, FOSS will continue, just as it did the first time they tried to kill it, thanks principally to the vision and ethics of Richard Stallman. The happy days for proprietary software vendors when software customers were too dumb to know any better are over. We all saw what happened when business took software and closed it down. We got lousy, buggy software that in some cases costs more than the hardware it runs on, software that opens us up to viruses and spyware and malware of dizzying variety. And we can't fix it. All we can do is hope Microsoft or other proprietary vendors will do it for us.

Should Mr. Henry's crazy prediction come true, it won't matter to the rest of the world at all. We'll just see FOSS continue to outcode proprietary software products, including the ones nominally called "Open Source". Brand X never does that well, you know. That's because there ain't nothing like the real thing, as the song says. And you know why it's real don't you? It's precisely because it isn't written by big businesses, with their self-absorbed, narrow marketing world view gumming up the works. That's why the world trusts GNU/Linux systems, you know. Seeing the code is vital, without a doubt, but that isn't all there is to it. China was allowed to look at Microsoft's code, and they still decided to go with GNU/Linux. You should never use software you can't trust. It's way too important. And there is more to trust than being able to examine the code.

Why businesses are the very last to grasp that vital truth is, frankly, a mystery to me. But the rest of us get it. And we are who they have to sell to.


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