Open source protectionism?

I just caught a rather interesting piece by fellow blogger Dana Blankenhorn on the subject of the "value and values" found in open source ecosystems. Near the end, he references an article on InfoWorld which questions whether it is wise to "protect" open source development by mandating its use at the government level.

I just caught a rather interesting piece by fellow blogger Dana Blankenhorn on the subject of the "value and values" found in open source ecosystems. Near the end, he references an article on InfoWorld which questions whether it is wise to "protect" open source development by mandating its use at the government level.

Dana had this to say in response:

Cogswell Cogs is deriving enormous value from its open source use but must share that with Spacely Sprockets? Placing this in the fictional world of The Jetsons lets you see just how big a leap this is. (The show is a product of the mainframe era, the 1960s.)

Yet that is precisely what open source values call upon us to do. It is why articles like this, equating a nation’s adoption of open source to protectionism, strike advocates as so silly and vendors as so right.

From a vendor’s perspective this is exactly what countries are doing, closing their markets to alternative approaches by mandating open source.

But from the advocate’s point of view, that mandate will also require sharing not only within that market but between markets, not only between developing markets but with developed ones as well. Where is the loss, they ask?

I don't find it so silly to call the reservation of sectors of an economy to open source protectionism, because its effects are the same. The fact that open source involves "sharing" doesn't change the analysis at all.

Open source is great stuff. I consider it an essential part of the fabric of the software economy. It consitutes goods that are, through licensing rules, guaranteed to always be part of the public domain - at least from an ideas standpoint (if not from a packaging standpoint). That is a useful contribution to the software economy, as lots of companies can benefit from a software layer that is essentially free (as in cost), even if the product as a whole isn't. I don't consider that notion any less capitalist than the ability to utilize a piece written by Mozart in a modern movie (which isn't exactly the same as Linux wasn't written 250 years ago, but expresses the concept of using public domain works in newer creations).

That being said, just because a person likes donuts doesn't mean he should eat nothing but donuts. The essential power of the marketplace is the variety of impulses that drive innovation. Open source, given its mandates to share innovation with anyone and everyone, has a different motivating impulse than models that give more of the spoils of victory to the originators of a new idea. Both are important, to my mind, in the healthy functioning of market capitalism.

Does proprietary software add nothing of value? Even Stallman doesn't think so, though from his standpoint, the contribution isn't welcome for ideological reasons. Proprietary companies have a much more intimate assocation with the needs of customers than open source efforts (which tend to be composed mostly of volunteers). Proprietary companies pay people to think about non-technical interests (volunteers often have more personal motivations).

This, I think, is the real reason the commanding heights of the software landscape are still controlled by proprietary solutions. In the consumer space, the market for desktop computers is almost entirely proprietary, a reflection of the focus proprietary companies tend to have on customers (something made easier when you can pay geeks to have that focus). Where open source operating systems have had the most success is in areas where the interests of self-motivated, technically-minded volunteers and customers most align, such as in server operating systems and in the embedded space.

I'm not saying it is impossible for open source projects to focus on the needs of the non-technical. Firefox has done quite well taking away marketshare from Internet Explorer. Rather, it is just HARDER to do so. The motivations of the people who contribute to open source tend to have a particular character, though individual contributors may have a keen mind for consumer needs, and provided they are sufficiently productive, can manage to change the balance in certain cases.  Basketball teams from small liberal arts universities every so often get an amazing player that tips the balance in contests with larger and better-funded universities.

A model based on sharing has its uses, but may be less helpful from an economic development standpoint than open source advocates claim. Developing market software and technology requirements are quite different than the needs of developed-market consumers. In fact, I would say programmers who live in developing markets will have a competitive advantage in serving those consumers, given that they have knowledge of those needs that it is impossible to acquire without living in those markets.

How are they to create software companies with exportable commodities based on those advantages if they are forced to share that knowledge with anyone and everyone? In other words, by mandating open source, do developing markets stifle the development of proprietary companies in their own markets (who, as I explained, have advantages, even if they don't merit any more protections than open source)?

Those are the reasons why I think it makes little sense to mandate open source solutions in developing markets (though I focused more on the economic negatives than on the labelling of such activity).  Open source already has a leg up by reason of cost. It's worth letting proprietary companies - both foreign AND domestic - have the chance to try to trump those advantages. The attempt is good for consumers, and good for markets.