Choke points in open source

Open source is a shared base. Competition takes place on top of that base. But before a new market can truly consolidate it becomes part of the base, and monopoly power is frustrated.

Homer choking Bart, from The Simpsons, Fox TV
A short while ago I described Google's fears as unfounded, stating that search engines are not the choke point in the Internet market.

One of the continuing fears among Internet mavens is someone will find a choke point, control the market, and drive innovation under.

Most markets have a choke point. In soft drinks it turned out to be distribution. In software it was the operating system. Control the choke point and you raise barriers to competition, first halting new entrants to the market, then consolidating your monopoly.

For much of this decade I, and others, have feared that access was such a choke point. But now that the Bells and cable guys have their monopoly, their profits are few.

In wireless their control has been overthrown. Apple iPhone users take 500 times the data of ordinary users. Networks must respond, releasing control over users to device makers. And the device market is highly competitive.

One feature of open source is that it frustrates the seeker of choke points.

The classic case is Linux itself. Because Linux is open source, and thus a shared base, no one can really control it. All innovations are open to all.

Red Hat may be the dominant corporate distro and Ubuntu a dominant consumer distro, but neither company is Microsoft, nor do they have the capability of becoming Microsoft.

The same is true across the board. Open source is a shared base. Competition takes place on top of that base. But before a new market can truly consolidate it becomes part of the base, and monopoly power is frustrated.

It is this process, which I have likened to the building of a coral reef, which is our chief protection against monopoly. Critics call this aspect of open source socialistic when it's really just anti-trust.

Because open source competition starts from a shared and rising base of code, barriers to entry can't rise as they do in the proprietary world. They exist. They do rise. If your ability to compete is based on the quality of your forge, that's a barrier to entry.

But does that mean the one-man band has no hope? Not at all. In fact the opportunities for programmers within the open source paradigm get wider, and deeper, all the time.

So long as competition starts from a shared base, I think that will continue to be the case. So long as open source and the Internet can continue, organically, to prevent the creation of choke points, the invisible hand remains the right one to play.

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