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Tim O'Reilly: Open-source purists trying to answer the wrong question

Open-source purists continue to fixate on the wrong argument, worrying about free riders when they should really be thinking of how to create data-driven businesses, Tim O'Reilly argues.

Of the formative figures in open source, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and Eric Raymond loom large. Arguably, however, few have had as much of a disruptive force as Tim O'Reilly, who has helped to create the open-source market and has spent the last six years reshaping it with his seminal "Open Source Paradigm Shift" and other articles.

In an engaging and informative recent TWiT podcast, O'Reilly revisits the theme. It doesn't break new ground (for O'Reilly), but does highlight, and render somewhat meaningless, the fissures currently running through the open-source community.

Host Randal Schwartz kicks off the podcast with a question about Twitter: Is Tim concerned that "Twitter is anything but open?"

I like to think I have a more nuanced view of open than a lot of people. Some purists will say that [I'm] a traitor....From the very beginning of my advocacy about open source, I've really just been interested in having interesting things happen in the world.

The reason I like open source and worked on this idea of renaming it from "free software" to "open source" was because I don't think it's a religious issue. It's really about how do we actually encourage and spark innovation. Because for me a more interesting world is one where there's more innovation and more freedom to innovate....

The idea is that people can build on it. You give it away because you want other people to do things with it that you can't do or don't want to do.

Open source, in other words, is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end, and that end is collaborative innovation.

While reputation is the first goal of many open-source developers, it's really a means, with the end for many being money ("There's huge currency in reputation. And that's how most open-source developers have 'monetized' giving away things for free.") But it's not really the ultimate end for, as O'Reilly rightly points out, "Money is a signifier of a more fundamental exchange."

Today, O'Reilly suggests, the real value in open source has little to do with source code; instead, it's the result of that code. Value has moved to data, with "network-effect driven databases - user-generated databases - [serving as] the heart of Web 2.0."

And yet, as O'Reilly points out, the open-source world continues to fixate on the wrong battles:

The whole context of free and open-source software is not about Linux taking over the world and replacing Windows. That might even happen, just as the PC replaced the mainframe. And it probably will happen. But it doesn't change the dynamic....

The heart of how we need to understand free and open-source software is in the context of Web 2.0. We can have as much open-source software as we want but we've now created this new layer where these databases that grow through user contributions are the real source of lock-in.

Eventually, these guys probably will make their software open source because it won't matter. The value lies in having the data. The real question is, will there be a future open-source movement that's really an open-data movement.

The market, in short, is no longer for software, open source or proprietary. Tomorrow's market is all about data. It's therefore not surprising that O'Reilly isn't too bothered by people who consume open source without contributing back. That's a short-term phenomenon:

Free riding doesn't bother me because we do get value from it.

That's not to say that there aren't real issues with the power that is accruing to Google, Facebook, et al., but open source is science, not religion. It's pragmatic. If you close things off, eventually you lose. This is why one of my slogans is 'Create more value than you capture.' As long as people are doing that, I don't care whether they're trying to capture some value.

It's a good point, and a great reminder that many persist in fixating on all the wrong issues in open source. The licensing wars should be a thing of the past. The question is how to drive participation while building businesses that improve as participation increases. Sometimes this will result from open-source licensing, but sometimes it won't.

So long as we focus on the correct end, rather than treating open source as an end in itself, we should be OK.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.