Beware of wolves in agnostic's clothing

Being an open source proponent is more fun than ever, says free software guru Bruce Perens. The best open source publicity stems from Microsoft's attempts to discredit it and its efforts.

COMMENTARY--Being an open source proponent is more fun than ever. We're getting more publicity than Salman Rushdie after the price was put on his head. Like Rushdie's, our publicity stems from attempts to discredit us, efforts by Microsoft and its shills in our case.

It's entertaining to watch the effect that open source seems to have on Microsoft executives. In February, Jim Allchin called us un-American. Recently, Steve Ballmer said Linux is a cancer! These are not the words of calm people. What is it about open source that makes Microsoft executives so uneasy? Could it be that after all of these years, competition has become so foreign an idea to them that they react with horror?

On ZDNet News, Jack MacCrisken's commentary One agnostic's view on open source theology sounds another strident voice from the Microsoft camp. Jack isn't an "agnostic"; he's a Microsoft consultant who previously specialized in bringing patent lawsuits against entire industries. And like MS executives, Jack comes with his own smoke and mirrors, like calling open source a 'theology.' Comparing it to religion is a rhetorical device to deny that there is logic behind it, and then Jack goes on to say that we are hostile to conventional ideas about property rights. We're not just religious, we're commies too! Perhaps he thinks that Karl Marx invented "helping your neighbor."

The concept of a commons has always been an essential feature of capitalism, especially for infrastructure like public roads. Open source puts software in the commons, a natural place for infrastructure, but Jack doesn't think that will work:

"...cooperation cannot be relied upon to sustain the pace of technological change that is so critical to economic growth. Funding of most enterprises requires profits..."

What Jack's missing is that virtually all profitable enterprises use software. These enterprises generate the funds that support software development, funds that become Microsoft's profits today but could be used more effectively.

Consider the cost difference between producing useful software, and producing profitable retail software. To produce software, you need to develop the software, document it, and distribute it. In contrast, to make profitable software, add on these services: marketing, commercial distribution and retail channel development, package design and manufacture, sales, business development, advertising, public relations, and so on. This multiplies the cost by approximately a factor of 10. Thus, 90 percent of the customer's software dollar is not going to software development under the proprietary model. Open Source addresses this imbalance.

Most software never has the potential to be profitable, and simply won't get made under the proprietary model. That explains why a number of innovative products, for example the Web server and browser, have made their debut as open source rather than wait for a market to develop.

So, what if the businesses that need software were to shoulder the costs of software development, without any intent to make the software into a profitable product? And what if they could distribute that cost among many users? The cost of software development would be reduced. They would then have more money to spend on their actual businesses, rather than the overhead of the software they were purchasing, and the economy would run more efficiently. Or perhaps they could use the money to make 10 times as much business software as we do now. Now, that would be driving innovation.

The software needs of individuals, rather than businesses, are simpler. Software-savvy individuals in the open source community have gotten a good deal of the way toward producing a system that would fulfill the average person's needs. They are now at the point of working on ease-of-use rather than basic functionality. And yes, Jack, the individual has control. Some of them are programmers, you know. Just about everybody knows one.

There is essentially zero cost associated with copying and distributing software in a non-profit venue. All of the true costs of software are its design and support, rather than physical manufacture. In contrast, we can't make cars or loaves of bread for the cost of designing them, and thus those industries need a more complicated economic model. Most businesses shouldn't build their own cars or generate their own electricity, but open source will do for software.

So, we've seen that open source has a sustainable economic model. Why, then, roll the progress we've made all of the way back to "shared source," which removes all of the customer advantages of open source and puts MS back in the driver's seat of the industry, back to calling the shots for virtually all software users? Because it's economically necessary for them to make a profit? That's only necessary if you are Microsoft. Much of the rest of the industry would be a little more comfortable with MS off of the scene.

Jack is up to his tricks again when he calls the GPL license "viral," labeling share and share alike as a disease. What he's not telling you is that Microsoft's own licenses would all be much worse than the GPL for the potential violator, even the ones they are considering for "shared source."

If you integrate Microsoft Word into a product without paying for it, expect a lot more than an email that says please share your code properly or remove my contribution.

So, what is Microsoft really asking for? An open source license without the sharing, so that Microsoft will never have to play fair. We have such a thing, and we use it when it's appropriate, sometimes even when it isn't. It might have been better if Microsoft hadn't been able to embrace-and-enhance the web browser and server, driving a wedge between their version and the rest of the Web. We'd be stupid to use a no-sharing license for all of our software--we'd just be giving, and Microsoft would just be taking, as if we were unpaid employees.

Microsoft especially wants government projects to use the no-sharing license. That's so that Microsoft can take software that the taxpayer has already paid for, and make them pay for it a second time. Call it the Microsoft Tax.

Jack has one more trick up his sleeve. In attempting to discount the business sense of the open source model, he uses a pessimistic statement from Red Hat's SEC 10-K filing. Finance pros know that these gloom-and-doom statements are part of every SEC filing, they are a complicated way of saying your stock could go down. So, let's pull some equally gloomy statements from Microsoft's year 2000 10-K filing:

With an increased attention toward open-source software, the Linux operating system has gained increasing acceptance. Several computer manufacturers preinstall Linux on PC Servers and many leading software developers have written applications that run on Linux. Microsoft Windows operating systems are also threatened by alternative platforms such as those based on Internet browsing software and Java technology promoted by AOL and Sun Microsystems.

So, even Microsoft faces risk. But none of this explains why Microsoft and its cronies have taken up the sport of open-source-bashing. After all, their profits are up, and we're a tiny few percent of the market. Could it be that they don't believe we'll stay that way? Another endorsement from the competition! There's no publicity so good as an attack from Microsoft.

Bruce Perens is a leader in the free software movement and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative.


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