The fabric of innovation and open source

Cooperation isn't the exclusive domain of open source software. Where we need more cooperation, however, is between the open source and proprietary camps.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

In the Talkbacks to my previous post, titled "Why economic development leads to democracy, John Le'Brecage, a guy who has been in these Talkbacks so long that I can't remember a time when he wasn't around (and that's a long time), had this to say:

Would be nice to see you address cooperation as a means of economic development and thereby as a means for political change. Sadly, I don't think you've ever addressed that concept and probably never will.

Well, I'll prove you wrong (at least about the economic development side of things...I'll leave the political aspects until later). Yes, I'm being manipulated by Talkbackers into this topic, but oh, such sweet manipulation. 

Cooperation is extremely essential to economic development. Getting hired is harder than downloading the code base from sourceforge. In fact, though many in this forum probably think otherwise, I'm no enemy of open source software (note:  I'm jumping this direction because, knowing Mr. Le'Brecage's viewpoint on some things, I'm guessing he is thinking of the cooperative process that goes into open source software). I think it is a great way to enhance the software development process, and my personal opinion is that Microsoft would do itself a lot of favors if it could find ways to release more of the source code for its products. Heck, I've even suggested that Microsoft could do a lot of good by open sourcing its kernel, and I STILL think that is the case (and Microsoft wouldn't even lose money in so doing, because the real value of Windows does NOT lie in the kernel).

The difference between you and me is not that you love open source software, and I hate it. Rather, I happen to think that proprietary software is ALSO a great generator of value and innovation.

But before I go into that, let me first dispense with a couple of pre-conceived notions implied in your post: that cooperation is the domain of open source, and NOT of proprietary software.

I think you are mixing the ability to bring in random coders into a software project with cooperation in the world of open source. How much do the forces of FreeBSD and Linux cooperate? How much do ANY open source products that do the same basic thing cooperate?

Granted, anyone can help out in the development of Linux due to the open nature of its code, but then again, anyone can help out in the development of Windows. They just have to get themselves hired by Microsoft. Within Microsoft, there are a LOT of people cooperating in the development of Windows, and given the early access Microsoft gives to a lot of its code these days (even to the extent of giving people source code access in universities), lots of people outside Microsoft cooperate in the development of Windows as well.

To be fair, though, there is a qualitative difference in the ability to participate in a proprietary software project versus an open source project. Getting hired is harder than downloading the code base from sourceforge.

Likewise, someone can invest lots of time in an open source project, and thus look, for all intents and purpose, like a virtual employee of a non-existent open source company. Or, they can spend a few days making a fix and submit that, never to touch the Linux codestream again. It's the ability of open source to harness the willingness of programmers to make tiny improvements that is so useful.

Proprietary software isn't completely free of such tiny improvements, however. I've argued before that proprietary software often makes up for its lack of access to the original software code by making well-defined extensibility interfaces into the software, enabling anyone to extend it without having to access the original source. This is something that proprietary companies have more of an incentive to do than open source projects, simply because of need.

But, I'm "nitpicking" at this point, and there ARE advantages to the open source development process that simply can't be conveyed in any other way than through access to source code. Even Microsoft understands that, which is why they grant access to (almost) the entire source code for Windows CE.

Back to the parallel nature of open source and proprietary software - I view both programming domains as a part of the same fabric of innovation. Open source creates good ideas, and proprietary software creates good ideas, and in an ideal world, both would cooperate in peace and harmony, baking cupcakes and playing on the collective innovation merry-go-round.

Unfortunately, we DON'T live in such an ideal world, and I place a lot of the blame for that on the philosophies of a certain founder of the Free Software Foundation who takes the bizarre position that half of the innovative fabric is evil, and thus not worth its contribution (even though MOST new technology comes out of the proprietary realm).

That certain someone says things like this (borrowed from a blog post by Ed Burnett):

Proprietary software developers have the advantage of money; free software developers need to make advantages for each other. Using the ordinary GPL for a library gives free software developers an advantage over proprietary developers: a library that they can use, while proprietary developers cannot use it.

I had a short series of pieces which documents my take on the debates surrounding the creation of GPLv3, and a number of people wondered aloud in the Talkbacks why I should care what happens in that world, as it doesn't affect me in the least.

Well, they are wrong. Open source DOES affect me, as its part of the fabric of innovation and produces many good ideas that interest me as a person who loves the art of programming. What drives me bonkers (and thus motivates me to write so much on the topic) is that the single most important open source license in the world is controlled (mostly) by a guy with a militant attitude against certain squares in the fabric.

In an ideal world, people would be figuring out more ways for proprietary and open source software to work seamlessly with each other (and I'm not the only person who thinks that). All would benefit, and innovation would accelerate appropriately. Unfortunately, it appears the GPLv3 is finding new ways to rip the innovation fabric in half. That is wrong, and THAT'S why I take such a keen interest in what goes on in open source country.

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