Open source amongst the cave dwellers

Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" offers an interesting perspective on proprietary software vendors' refusal to see the benefits of open source. Fortunately, their intransigence may not matter much to the velocity of the open source movement, thanks to univ

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
6 min read

I spent some time today reading Plato's classic, The Republic and, in particular, his famous Allegory of the Cave. I have many good friends who work for proprietary software companies, and I'm always puzzled by their inability to see how open source could benefit them. They persist in believing that maximum money derives from maximum control over their software and, hence, maximum control over their customers.

This strange insistence on seeing the world through proprietary glasses perplexes me as the software world moves online and companies like Google show that you can make huge mountains of cash by giving your core service away for free. Infatuated as they are with bits and bytes, they have completely missed the movement of software away from software, per se, to service.

Which brings me back to Plato's cave.

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:--Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets....

And do you see...men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall?...

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?...

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?...

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And so it is in software. Those raised in the proprietary world are convinced that the shadows they perceive are real; are, in fact, the only real way to build a business in software. The same shadow-gazing can be seen in the entertainment industry, and in every industry that tries to retrofit the digital world with the only world they've known:

The physical world of property.

But it seems a perverse stretch to try to make the digital world act like land, like possessions that one has. Why? Because software has always been about what one does with it. It's not a stationary object that waits for you to fence it or pick it up and move it to your pile. Software is a service.

But I guess we shouldn't expect the old world to recognize this when billions of dollars depend on a different model of thinking. When you try to drag a cave-dweller out into the light, as in Plato's allegory, they react in predictable ways:

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision,--what will be his reply?...Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

I just wish those outside the cave would stop trying to drag shadows out into the light. It's just not helpful.

I'm not suggesting that open source is The One True Way. I am, however, suggesting that those of us in the open source world recognize cave we used to live in. Open source is simply a better way to develop, distribute, and support software, not because of divine ordination but because of pragmatism. In other words, because it works.

I've been criticized on this point before, mostly with the following argument:

My proprietary employer makes billions every year - it certainly seems to work.

But the criticism misses the point because it shows disregard for the party that matters most in the equation: the customer. Proprietary licenses provide absolutely no value for the customer. They are completely vendor-centric. In addition, it begs us to believe that big money will always attach to proprietary licenses, but most movement in the industry nudges to believe the opposite will be true. The industry is clearly moving toward service-based business models, and VCs are increasingly investing their money in that direction.

What we should avoid is the old guard monopoly rent-seekers trying to FUD their way into preserving the status quo to their benefit, and everyone else's (including the customer's) detriment. No one has a right to their business model in perpetuity, as my former professor, Larry Lessig, argues brilliantly. Business models and the licensing that support them come and go - customers are forever.

We are entering the next phase of software - software that is service-based, not license-based. A phase that will provide superior customer value than the proprietary software model has. Software-as-a-Service is one representation of this; open source is the other. Both models force vendors to deliver service and value, not software and licenses.

I am convinced that these service-based models will win out. Not tomorrow, and not five years from now. But I believe the customer will win out eventually.

I'm also expecting open source and SaaS models to blend increasingly, as Zimbra is doing now. I'm less convinced that the Old Guard software vendors will figure out these new models - which are disruptive to their business models - and embrace them. They'll remain in the cave, and make money with shadows...until they don't anymore.

One reason for my conviction is that universities are increasingly teaching open source, and new developers are discovering open source through them or on their own. The Net is an open source world, and when newbies plug in, they discover open source. They're not going to pay to join this or that Big Company developer program. They're going to take the free software that is readily available and build on it.

For many of us who have grown up outside the cave, it's difficult to understand the cave dwellers and their insistence on shadow-gazing. But, fortunately for the industry (that is, for the customer), more and more of us are growing up outside the cave. Open source is not perfect by any stretch, and the business models around it are still being perfected.

But one thing is clear: a movement that so clearly benefits customers will win, because ultimately customers determine the future of the industry with the checks they write.