When I read the other day an article entitled "Why Open Source May Be Doomed", my first reaction was to just ignore it. It's hard to rationally answer an article so biased, factually inaccurate, and lacking in fundamental comprehension of the subject as this one, which begins like this:
"I have to admit that I was never much of a believer in open source. Maybe my business school coursework rendered me blind to the glorious vision of a 'gift culture' in which people contribute their work to a decentralized development project like Linux for honor instead of money. Or possibly I'm just too thick to understand how cutting off a multi-billion dollar revenue stream from software sales, without putting anything else in its place, could be good for the software business. Whatever the problem, I never quite believed in the fairy tale world they promised in which we'd all get an operating system that was better than Windows in every way, for absolutely no money -- not even when IBM started retailing Linux PC's and the juggernaut of fabulous free operating systems seemed unstoppable. But I confess that in all my skeptical musings, I did not imagine that Linux might be brought down by something even more prosaic than a lack of funds: a lawsuit."
"Too thick" it is, then. You yourself said it.
How do you answer something "so bad it's not even wrong", in Wolfgang Pauli's famous phrase? She ought, instead, I thought, call her fervent FUD/editorial pretending to be an article: "Why I Do So, So Hope, Hope, Hope Open Source is Doomed".
I do, after all, have to consider the impact on my neurons of bombarding my brain daily by answering all the minute details of FUD, I decided. I'd save myself for the big stuff, which this wasn't.
But now I see it's being republished here and there. In my experience, that often turns out to mean that there is some force behind it giving it a PR lift. Also, it smacks of the "Open Source is hippie, dippie, icky, commie, unAmerican" stream of FUD, and that is both untrue and defamatory, so it needs to be answered wherever it appears, particularly because McBride has expressed such views, and it may turn out to be an orchestrated campaign of some importance in the SCO story. Open source, although boasting an international community, springs from values as American as apple pie, not that they are uniquely US property.
So, I started digging to find out who owns Tech Central Station, which published the article first, and here is what they tell us about themselves on their About Us page:
"Tech Central Station is supported by sponsoring corporations that share our faith in technology and its ability to improve modern life. Smart application of technology - combined with pro free market, science-based public policy - has the ability to help us solve many of the world's problems, and so we are grateful to AT&T, ExxonMobil, General Motors Corporation, Intel, McDonalds, Microsoft, Nasdaq, National Semiconductor, PhRMA, and Qualcomm for their support. All of these corporations are industry leaders that have made great strides in using technology for our betterment, and we are proud to have them as sponsors. However, the opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of the writers and not necessarily of any corporation or other organization."
Not *necessarily*, eh? No agenda there.
Those rascals Microsoft show up again in the background, although "not necessarily". The MS FUD machine grinds on and on like a tank. So, next I decided to find out who Megan McArdle is that she wishes to be published by this corporate PR rag with content that might express Microsoft's views in exchange for its money, but "not necessarily". I gather from a Google search she writes under two names, the McArdle name and the name Jane Galt on janegalt.net, and that she is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. But let her tell you who she is and what she is about in her own writings here and here and here and here and here.
Just as I sighed and sat down to begin to write, I read a comment entitled "So ignorant it is hard to read" by Dick Gingras, of Software Results, on Groklaw, answering some of her points. I asked him to do an expanded article in answer to her main point. If I spread answering the FUD around among us all, I reasoned, I won't end up a drooling idiot, hopefully, by the time the trials finally begin.
He was kind enough to write it. So, here it is:
Dick Gingras' answer to "Why Open Source May Be Doomed":
The other day on Groklaw, an anonymous user posted a link to an article on Tech Central Station entitiled "Why Open Source May Be Doomed" by Megan McArdle. The article was anti-Linux/FOSS and filled with inaccuracies relative to the SCO/IBM case, so I wrote a response and sent it to the TCS editor; I also posted it on Groklaw.
Unfortunately, under the influence of a flush of anger, I neglected to address the author's main premise that "Linux is doomed" and refute her premises. Herein, at PJ's urging, I continue with the rebuttal of those points.
McArdle states as one of the threats to Linux: "[I]f you're an IT manager deciding whether or not to purchase a Linux machine, how can you be sure that those stolen lines are the only ones?", referring to the code allegedly copied from Unix. Indeed, the same question could be asked about buying Microsoft Windows, or any other piece of software. We can't know for certain that an overworked programmer hasn't misappropriated some code so he can meet a deadline, regardless of which company he works for. Furthermore, this situation is less likely to happen with Linux/FOSS because of its open nature - any closed source developer can compare code at will.
She seems to think that IT managers are a timid bunch, fearful of making a move to Linux because there might be some risk of purloined code being discovered. But having spent 15 years of my career as the IT Director of a manufacturing company, I can state unequivocally that my peers in the many companies I dealt with were far from timid. Risk-taking is part of the job description, so there's no room for the meek.
But risk is only one factor in the IT decision-making process, and it's effect is tempered by all the other variables that make up the cost/benefit equation. A healthy company assumes risks that are commensurate with the rewards; a company that takes no risks becomes moribund. (I'll ignore the fact that insurance companies built an industry out of providing coverage for business risks.)
The cost/benefit aspects of FOSS are large enough that when weighed against the tiny potential of an adverse decision in the SCO case (one that's getting smaller by the day) or exposure to "stolen code", I expect that only the most risk-averse would avoid Linux specifically for those reasons. We've already seen some companies publicly stating that they'll continue with their Linux deployments despite SCO, but I'll wager that most just dismiss SCO with a shrug of indifference or, if they've been following the SCO case, maybe a sneer of derision.
McArdle's premise that the FOSS "gift culture" is bad for business is seriously flawed. As has been pointed out by Stanford Law Professor Larry Lessig and others, the scientific community has used that same model for centuries, sharing for the good of society, while business has thrived on the fruits of their labors. That paradigm started the Industrial Revolution and, through the accelerating accumulation of knowledge, has carried us to the onset of the Space Age.
There's no reason to believe that FOSS will affect businesses adversely, not even in the software business. Microsoft's hegemony may be threatened, but for many reasons that's a desired result, despite what McArdle may think. FOSS may spur Microsoft to compete on merit. Most other software companies are used to competing and will probably welcome doing so on an open field. (With Microsoft preoccupied, they may even get a breather from watching their backs.) Competition drives prices down and provides choices for consumers while keeping companies sharp and, hopefully, honest. Although FOSS may have an advantage in being gratis or low-cost, it's at a distinct disadvantage because there's virtually no infrastructure to market it. All things considered, the playing field is fairly level.
Her "gift" argument has another flaw: the "free as in beer" aspect of Linux that she alludes to is clearly not the only significant reason companies decide to use Linux; it's the "free as in freedom" of the GPL. Sure, small companies, non-profits and home users may gravitate to Linux largely for reasons of cost, but the biggies that make the headlines in the IT trade journals do so not just to save money but because freedom to change the software at will allows them to gain control of their own destinies. Early on in my position as IT Director, I made the decision to purchase the source code for the manufacturing software that we used. Despite the initial cost, this was the best decision I ever made because we could customize the software to fit our business instead of fitting our business to the software. That's the real power of freedom.
Finally, her premise that Linux will die echoes the oft repeated mantra heard for the last 15 years - Unix is dead! I wish I had saved all the magazine covers that had that prediction. Unix is still going strong despite the Unix International/OSF war, the "Unix is snake oil" pronouncement of DEC's Ken Olsen and all the worst intentions of Microsoft and a host of others. Why? Because it has a simple internal design and uses a toolbox programming model, making it truly a joy for programmers to work with. Most important of all, it does the job well.
Linux is similar and provides a familiar environment to users and programmers acquainted with Unix. Together with the myriad programs and utilities from the GNU project, X-Windows, KDE/Gnome, OpenOffice.org, Evolution, Apache and many more, we have a complete environment for almost any computing situation. Most important, it runs on most existing computer architectures. This is not lost on the likes of IBM, HP, SGI, Sony, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Motorola, Tivo and a raft of others who used to spend a lot of money writing or porting their own Operating System software. Embracing GNU/Linux saves a significant amount of time, effort and money that would otherwise have been consumed in reinventing the wheel with each new product release. By sharing in Linux development costs, either monetarily or through their own development efforts, they can all have what they need with a much smaller expenditure of resources. Once Linux reaches the point of scalability as exists in AIX, HP-UX, etc. (fairly soon), those operating systems can be retired to maintenance mode.
The companies that promote and use Linux are acting in self-interest, and for logical reasons; due to the GPL, they can't appropriate the code, but in a more than fair exchange, each company gets to use it as it needs. So unless they want to go back to writing all that code individually, they will keep Linux alive.
Even if I'm wrong about the motives of those companies, the developers of GNU/Linux will keep on, because they program for the intellectual joy of it. That's what started it all in the first place and it will continue as long as there are programmers who love their chosen profession. That others find their efforts useful is an added bonus.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons License.
© Copyright 2003 Dick Gingras
"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." - Thomas Jefferson, August 13, 1813