Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 26/5/05Richard Stallman is someone who could never be accused of taking users' rights too lightly. In fact, he may be the only person ever to make me feel sympathetic towards those poor repressed underdog corporations: it's not a pleasant business being at the sharp end of his uncompromising philosophy.

Thursday 26/5/05

Richard Stallman is someone who could never be accused of taking users' rights too lightly. In fact, he may be the only person ever to make me feel sympathetic towards those poor repressed underdog corporations: it's not a pleasant business being at the sharp end of his uncompromising philosophy.

But he's off doing good — with luck — in Taiwan, where he's behind closed doors (although with open windows, one hopes) and talking to hardware manufacturers about opening up driver information. It's an essential commercial decision, working out how much of your company's limited resources to allocate to writing minority interest software like Linux drivers, and it's hard to argue against whatever a particular company does. It's harder to understand why you'd want to keep the information secret that could let others do that job for you — at no cost, excepting perhaps the odd email. Yet many hardware manufacturers are obsessively secretive about such details.

The obvious reason is to stop your competitors from finding out what you've done — obvious, but wrong. Anyone in a position to profit from that level of detail is going to be equipped to find it out whether you tell them or not. You might save them an engineer-month or two if you just tell them, but the loss is tiny compared to the potential win from having people who aren't your competitors — and who are thus much less likely to find out for themselves — know how to make your hardware more desirable. And in any case, by the time you've put a product on the market those innovations of yours are already old news. You'd better be busy working on the next version already: if your competitors want to incorporate ideas a generation out of date in their next version, then what the hell. Let them.

A less obvious reason to keep your technology close to your chest is to maintain flexibility. You might want to make radical changes to an interface between revisions, and if the only people writing the drivers are in the office next door you can keep much more control over the whole process. You won't have legions of annoyed independents suddenly surprised by the change. But so what if they are? At least with an open attitude to publishing the details once you're selling the hardware, they can swiftly adapt.

Old habits die hard, as does the sense that security through secrecy provides unparalleled advantages. Sometimes it does, but there's a point where it hinders rather than helps — and if Stallman can push that point back in time, he'll have done everyone a favour.