February is the month most Americans reserve for sending notes to loved ones, but Microsoft sent anything but hugs and kisses this year in a series of interviews criticizing the Open Source community. Following Steve Ballmer's proclamation that Linux is currently the greatest threat to Microsoft, a handful of Microsoft executives began a rather reckless attack of Open Source -- and everything related to it. Doug Miller piped in with "there's little value in free" and James Allchin boldly cried that Open Source is an "intellectual property destroyer" that "kills innovation."
Microsoft should have sent the Open Source community a big box of candy and dozens of roses. Open Source software has been the epicenter of some of the greatest innovations of our industry -- namely, the Internet. And these innovations have benefited Microsoft handsomely. Sound ridiculous? Let me explain.
The genius of the Internet was two-fold: (1) its decentralized architecture, which made it scalable, and (2) its implementation of truly open protocols, which made it ubiquitous. Unlike gold, whose value is in its scarcity, the value of a network is a function of its ubiquity. The Internet was not the first computer network, but it was the first that could grow organically without central control. It was also the first network with published, Open Source implementations of its fundamental protocol, TCP/IP, enabling compatibility among competing implementations.
And as the Internet flourished, the World Wide Web, also with roots in Open Source, blossomed. Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), envisioned a system where scientists could publish papers and link them together with hypertext between networked computers, thereby improving the quality and efficiency of research. Proprietary hypertext systems of the day used proprietary protocols and file formats. None of them had the interoperability necessary to guarantee that a document created by one author could be reliably referenced within a document created by a different author using different tools. In other words, it was impossible to make this system ubiquitous and universal.
By using the non-proprietary HTML file format, and by publishing the source code to the HTTP protocol, Berners-Lee made it easy for others to create their own Web content and Web sites. People immediately ported this software from the quirky NeXT platform to mainstream systems by Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics and even Microsoft. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands, and now tens of millions of people have created their own Web sites, Web content, search engines and other innovations.
Making the source code available in the traditional academic fashion encouraged other innovators to make improvements to the original protocol and return those changes back via the Open Source community. The World Wide Web was not a lucky break that one individual scored, but a process by which the right insight at the right time could be implemented by anybody, anywhere in the world. Progress was not limited by a single person or company, but only by the rate of innovation.
And today, search engines like Google, which runs Red Hat Linux on thousands of tightly networked machines, index more than one billion Web pages and help people find information and share information with unprecedented efficiency. If every site on the Web used a proprietary server that required a proprietary content access mechanism, independent search engines like Google could not exist. Instead, there could only be "flavors" of search engines -- limited by the reach of a single person or a single company.
Do you want ANY single company chaperoning our searches for the next 100 years? If its search engine "failed" to find material information on the Web, would we accept that it was just another bug in their engine? With Open Source, any problem can be reported, examined, fixed and verified by any party that has the technical ability and desire to do so. This combination of freedom and openness proved to be the winning one, creating trillions of dollars of value over the past decade. The Internet is both a validation and embodiment of the Open Source philosophy, and it has become an ideal infrastructure for helping us share information and further accelerate our rate of innovation.
Microsoft is now arguing against the open, democratic process that created the very future of its own industry -- -the Internet. And the Internet isn't the first time Microsoft benefited greatly from the collective innovations of others. Microsoft did not create the first PC operating system (that was either Digital Research's CP/M or Seattle Software Company's Q-DOS), nor did they create the first windowing system, the first word processor, the first spreadsheet, the first relational database, or even the first Web browser. Microsoft just did a good job of packaging, marketing and branding these better than others.
No open source eclipse in sight
The heart of Microsoft's argument is not unlike the "Petition" that Frederic Bastiat posted 150 years ago on behalf of numerous French industries (ranging from candlemakers to lamp oil producers), decrying ruinous competition from a rival source so superior and so low-cost that without radical changes to the laws, these industries would never realize their full potential. Bastiat's satirical petition proposed passing a law requiring the closing of "all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses." He argued that protecting certain domestic industries against such unfair competition (free sunlight), would be good not only for the industries themselves, but all of France. The patent absurdity of Bastiat's proposal (available here, http://www.newaus.com.au/econ12.html, among other locations) translates perfectly from French to English, from the 19th century to the 21st, and from candlemakers to software producers. (By the way, I found the Bastiat article on Google in less than a second by typing "candle maker sun competition" and hitting "Google Search.")
Giving Microsoft -- or any other large, proprietary software company -- the control they want over the Internet would be just as ruinous to the entire technology industry as would the closing of all sources of sunlight to the industries of 19th century France. But we're not worried. Unlike 19th century France or the back-room deal-making of proprietary software's past, Open Source is out in the open for all to see. We have nothing to hide -- and we welcome the debate, the competition and the innovation. We just wish Microsoft would be more grateful.
Author's bio: Michael Tiemann is one of the first and most important pioneers of open source. His early work with GNU software created world-leading technologies, and became an inspiration to Linus Torvalds and an enabling technology for Linux in 1991. Today, as Chief Technical Officer of Red Hat, he continues to shape the future of open source as it drives the next-generation of embedded, post-PC computing devices. Prior to joining Red Hat, Michael served as the co-founder and Acting CTO of Cygnus Solutions, which was acquired by Red Hat in January 2000. During his ten years at Cygnus, Michael participated in a number of roles, helping to lead the company from a fledgling start-up to an admired open source powerhouse. He is a frequent speaker and well-respected expert within the open source community.