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Innovation

Why open source remains an ideological divide

I say stand proudly with your friends or you get run over. Be open source, recognize the difference between that and the proprietary model, and go forward. If they want to give you the black hat for that, wear it proudly.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

Matt Asay has a piece today that is the tech equivalent of a Barack Obama speech.

He tries, once again, to remove ideology from the discussion of open source vs. proprietary software. He urges consensus, the best of both worlds, and asks can't we all just get along?

As in politics the answer often turns out to be no, because there is a basic ideological divide here.

Proprietary companies succeed by imposing a top-down structure on software development and using sales revenue to keep everyone in line. I mean everyone -- marketing, legal, support, development, and customers, too.

With proprietary software you're either on the bus or you're off the bus. Leave the firm and you lose access to your code. Leave it as a customer and you lose all your past work, along with much of your knowledge.

You become the business equivalent of David Brock or John Dean. (This is not a political point. Think Dennis Miller or the late Ron Silver, who went the other way.) In religious terms you are apostate, exiled. There seems to be no middle ground.

Open source offers a bottom-up structure of development but money is something of an afterthought. By that I mean you focus first on the job at hand, then build a business model around it, rather than the other way around.

You gain freedom but lose money. The marketing money, the distribution money, all that lovely gelt that bought the lawyers and the trade show booths and the incentive prizes to exotic destinations, is out of your life.

Unless you consider Portland exotic.

This divide between money-is-all and money-is-not-all is baked into the system. You don't want to turn into Richard Stallman when you take the open source road, you may even reject him personally, but you soon find a daily shave is not necessary, and that broken-in sneakers are really quite comfortable.

Open source, as distinguished from FOSS, is an attempt to marry the best of both worlds, to build a business around a free model.

But no matter how capitalistic you may sound your hippie business heritage remains, and the best way to build a community around your software may still mean the GPL. Development will still require transparency.

Here's where we turn back to politics.

When conservatives want to attack President Obama the first epithet they usually sling is "socialist." What they mean is a demand economy, as in Cuba or the old Soviet Union. They don't usually mean Sweden, or the Netherlands, or England or Canada, where life seems quite comfortable.

If you think of Stallman as Cuba and a company like Red Hat as Sweden, you get the ideological dilemma both Asay and our President face today.

I like shopping at Ikea. The solution for open source? Accept the limits and be proud of what you are. As to the President? Tune in Wednesday, but don't expect it to be followed by a Republican chorus of Kumbaya.

Point is, Matt, in the end you have to choose a side. I say stand proudly with your friends or you get run over. Be open source, recognize the difference between that and the proprietary model, and go forward. If they want to give you the black hat for that, wear it proudly.

Stand for something.

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