Open Source Reality Check

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You would be forgiven for thinking that the open source in business debate had been finally put to bed with the likes of IBM backing Linux and even the notoriously secretive Apple opening parts of Mac OS X to the public. However, you’d be wrong.

With Microsoft’s announcement that open source software is a “cancer” and a communist plot, it would seem that the debate rages on – but the Microsoft statement only gives one side of the argument. The question isn’t Is Open Source Good For Business?, rather it should be, Is Business Good for Open Source?

Intellectual property is big business. IBM, the company that is pinning its hopes on flogging Linux-based “solutions” to medium and large businesses, registered 2,886 patents last year, and it isn’t alone. Of course, such companies claim that this is done to protect their research; after all they’ve spent a lot of money developing ideas.

However, consider this. IBM acquired a patent for utilising the idle processing power of computers connected to the Internet. This will of course immediately set warning bells ringing for users of SETI@home, the software that uses idle CPU cycles to analyse data pertaining to extra-terrestrial radio signals.

Little has been made of developments such as this, and for good reason. Many of those behind Linux are happy to describe themselves as “geeks.” In a recent issue of the UK based magazine, Linux Format, Jonathan Wright pointed out that we should not expect “well argued, geo-political views form a self-confessed computer nerd (Linus Torvalds).” Indeed.

As has often been pointed out, Richard Stallman is one of the few persons involved in the free software movement who can be considered left-wing or liberal in any traditional sense. The motive behind free software is often mistaken by the liberal press to be one of offering software for no-cost that is as good as commercial efforts.

In reality, the post-modern hacker ethic, “information wants to be free” is closer to the truth. Hackers are interested in exploiting the geography of computer software, and most seem uninterested in the political ramifications of their work, outside of a few mentioning how free access to computers will be good for the third world. A laudable cause, no doubt, but an end to war, famine, and corrupt government would probably be a better starting point.

If these hackers are uninterested in the existence of their software as something other than code, then it should come as no suprise that so many are suddenly arguing for the adoption of Linux by business. Business use of Linux offers credibility and financial gain. No general purpose operating system can survive if it is not adopted in some form by business.

Apple Macintoshes are rarely seen in offices, but their total domination of the creative industries guarantees their future and also helps get machines into homes. Aside from this, Macs are more common in medium size enterprise networking scenarios than people realise, and this can only increase with the release of the Unix-based Mac OS X.

Not many companies have made any money out of Linux yet, but as they search around looking for alternative revenue streams, it will only be a matter of time before they hit the magic strategy. Caldera’s recent licensing change is a case in point, and anyone who thinks that IBM or Apple are involved in open source software for altruistic reasons is obviously under the influence of Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. We all have problems with Microsoft’s “aggressive” marketing strategy, but is it realistic to believe that Apple, Sun Microsystems, IBM, or even Red Hat would behave any differently if they found themselves with a Microsoft-sized monopoly?

If anything is a cancer in Linux, it is the involvement of business. Unfortunately, however, it’s one tumour that will not be treated. One only need look at BeOS to see what the future holds for an operating system that gets no substantial foothold in industry. It doesn’t matter how good your product is if no-on uses it.

This, of course, matters less to Linux, as it is open source. The continued development of Linux is not dependent on continued support from a parent company, and though it’s handy to have so many distributions to choose from, it’s not necessary.

The ironic twist is that hackers, who rail against Unisys or Thompson for demanding licensing fees for GIF and MP3 compression, respectively, are themselves inviting business to eat at their table.

The only options are either to renounce business, which would be counter productive – and too little, too late – or to climb down from the open-source-high-horse and admit that their “altruistic” reasons for producing software are largely self serving.

It has not been my purpose here to criticise the many talented programmers who have contributed to Linux and other open source software, merely to point out that the debates surrounding it are, more often than not, clouded by obfuscation and meaningless platitudes. The “open source good, closed source bad” mentality is totally misleading and disingenuous. Free software is not a manifesto for a brave new world, and any individual piece of software should be judged on its merits alone.

Keywords: #opensource #ppclinux #linux

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