CyberTech Rambler

September 20, 2005

FUD == “British Computer Society: The Trouble with Open Source” ?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 1:11 pm

Thank god the article “The trouble with open source” is simply a “Member’s view” and just that. At its heart, it is an advocacy piece: Keep open source inside academic and outside software industry, and can the government please please launch an investigation on all these negative impact of Open Source to British Software Industry. The main flaw with the article is that the author had tried to frame its main arguments, the rest of the article simply suggested that the industry faces chanllenges from open source software. Hence it fails to provide compelling reasons for any government investigation.

Lets disects the four main problems with open source, unframing the arugments as we go. First, on intellectual property, the question on whether an employee have the rights to contribute the software he or she develop while in the employment of others is a question that affects ALL software professionals, and therefore, cannot be potray as an open source only problem. No matter how many laws he quote in as many jurisdiction as possible, every software professionals are governed equally. I am not a lawyer, but I am sure the court will take a common sense approach when confronted with this problem, especially it the software is developed “after hour” and not in line of the employee’s responsibitiy to his employer. His piece also ignored the growing number of software professionals employed by companies specifically to contribute to open source projects.

Second, His view point on “conceptual Integrity” is already answered by Mr Eric Raymond in the book “The cathedral and bazaar” by Eric Raymond. Moreover, it is wrong for him to suggest that “conceptual integrity” is the exclusive province of a company or a brilliant man with his team in support. There need not be a central design concept that need to be slavishly adhere to as advocated by Mr Marshall for a software to succeed: the coming together of TCP/IP, email and webserver to form the entity we know as the Internet prove my point. In fact, this rigid adherence to a blue print (design concept) can inhibits innovation/creativity. Moreover, nowadays, there is a shift to developing a structure where software can be developed piecemeal and joined together. JavaBeans, .NeT Framework and Eclipse Platform are good examples. If adherence to a central design concept is important, the “community process”, in the example of Linux Kernel Project, shows that this is not an exclusive province of company or software industry. By the way, the internet relies very heavily on open source software.

Peer review is important. By revealing their source code, small open source team get the opportunity to have their code reviewed in a way not possible with a small team. The quality of peer review depends on the expertise of the peer. Restricting source code access as in the case closed source program, can only reduce the quality of the code. In contrast, with important open source project, the code is reviewed by renowed experts in the field. One such example is of course the Linux Kernel Project.

Thirdly, some software professionals called themselves hackers because they perceive their effort in modifying small pieces of program code into a bigger software is like “hacking” the software. Every programmers therefore started life as hackers (and probably remains as hackers), as we all start by modifying softwares, a small piece at a time. Getting credits for one’s contribution is the motivation for most open source contributor. This, and the fact the visibility and readability of source code make it easy to review unprofessional practice, is a higher incentive to behave professionally. At least higher than someone who can hide behind anonymity of proprietory software.

Fourthly and finally, while money is a very good incentive for innovation. It is not the only way. Using open source code, by reusing existing source code, an open source programmer can concentrates on writting the little extra code that realize his creation and unleash his innovative potential. Open source and proprietory software are often created to do the same task, therefore they share a lot of similiarity. This, does not mean however that open source, or indeed, properitory software, is a facsilimile of the other. Moreover, open source do promote innovation, examples include the “Union Filesystem” from Knoppix and Gimp and its ScriptFu programmability, to name a few.

Mr Marshall fears of small proprietory innovative software company being driven out of business by open source. The truth is, small business fails because it cannot compete, and the competition may come from other properitory software company, especially the larger one, or the open source company. Most importantly, if these companies can continue to innovate, they have no fear.

The authors highlights the benefit open source brings to academia but believe it is not appropriate for software industry. Why shouldn’t the software industry copy or learn a thing or so from a strategy that had helped the academia? It is true that traditional business model for software does not sit well with open source, but business model do evolve. Companies that fails to evolve its business model, like companies that fails to innovate, will fall sideway. MySQL, RedHat, Novell, Trolltech, SleepyCat and SendMail are examples of a few companies that found a model for themselves. None of the company above have nonscalable business model.

He says academia requires industry to distribute the fruit of its research. While industry is one of the most easy way of distributing the fruit of research, there are other channels, such as directly from the internet. Hence, it is not the industry that needs academia or vice-versa, this is a symbiotic relationship.

UK government, like that of the state of Massatucetts, or any company for that matter, is entitled to formulate their own procurement criteria for to suit their software need. However, as public body, they need to explain their policy decision and why they vaiour one type of sovware over another. As long as their explaination is valid and is clearly in the interest of their citizens, they performed their public duty and we should let it be.

In a free economy, the government should not favour one type of business model over another but instead let the market decides. Hence, it is wrong for Mr Marshall to ask for government help to investigate and combat the so-called “negative” impact Open SOurce might pose or to build on the opportunities that OS had created (I assumed, from my impression on his article, he wants to limit the assistance for open source limitted to academia only). The government should only investigate when there is a distortion of the market, such as the abuse of monopoly power. Open Source is changing the industry, the same way proprietory program changed the industry 25 years ago. It is not a distortion of the market, until than, the government should wash its hand.

Are Free Software Foundation (FSF) and/or Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pressure groups? Mr Marshall thinks so. I reexamined the boundary I imposed between advocacy group, pressure group and lobby group. For me, an advocacy group uses legitimate tactics including refering to the law courts, education and PR campaign to advance one’s view. It becomes lobby group when it tries to buy influence, e.g., by contributing campaign fund or outright bribery. It is a pressure group when it assert “pressure” to get its way, such as threatening to withhold something they know is important to others to impose its view. Using this definitions, FSF and EFF are just advocacy groups. This is my view, and you can use FSF and EFF’s websites (pay particular attention to their activities) to make your mind up.

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