Tech Industry

Deciphering the open-source war

Bruce Perens, a leader in the free-software movement, explains how the latest critical statements by a senior Microsoft exec are part of a familiar strategy--only now the stakes for both sides are even higher.

He's baaack! At the recently concluded World Congress on Information Technology 2002, Microsoft's Craig Mundie registered his objection to those awful folks who take the liberty to compete with his company.

Mundie's first target is a familiar one: the folks who make Linux and other software that is under the GPL, the GNU General Public License. Considering all of those IBM ads, and the participation of every major computer manufacturer, the GNU-Linux system has indeed become a crown jewel of capitalism. This should be no surprise: Commerce has thrived in a "commons" since the first public squares were constructed, and the GPL's share-and-share-alike system creates a commons for software.

But Mundie says the problem with general public license advocates is that they don't understand that people need the opportunity to commercialize software.

"If there is not commercialization there, a company can only exist based on ancillary manufacturing or services," Mundie said. "If commercialization was cut down, investors would not support research and development in the IT sector, less projects would be developed, less taxes paid, and the government would have less money to run universities and all the other things that governments do."

Mundie uses a textbook tactic of manipulation: start with some reasonable talk, and lead the audience to an unreasonable conclusion. The reasonable part is that businesses have to sell something to make money. And it's (deliberately) hard to commercialize GPL software. To follow Mundie's conclusion, however, you'd have to believe that the money people save by using the GNU-Linux system just disappears.

But, of course, that money isn't lost to the economy. What happens to the money that companies save by using GPL software? They put it into their business. They like that. And of course, some of that money then goes to pay taxes, and some of those taxes pay for universities, and university R&D is where the good ideas come from.

Mundie uses a textbook tactic of manipulation: start with some reasonable talk, and lead the audience to an unreasonable conclusion.
Microsoft's R&D department produces some good ideas too. And Mundie's correct that if a lot of people turned to competitors, Microsoft would have less cash to fund research. Of course, there are also big research labs at companies that are involved with GPL software: IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, Sun Microsystems--the list goes on.

Microsoft is already turning toward a services-based business plan, as .Net, Passport and other recent initiatives show. How, then, will it fund R&D when software sales aren't its primary money-maker? They will treat software as enabling technology and will continue to fund it because their service business won't work without technology.

This is little different from the way that IBM currently justifies their $1 billion annual investment in the GNU-Linux system.

But this is not to say that the main benefit of Linux and other GPL software is lower-cost. Control is the main benefit--cost is secondary.

Control means being able to get a different service provider if you don't like the service you're getting on your software. Control means not having to convince the software's producer that your needs fit in their marketing plan. Control means not living in fear that the BSA (Business Software Alliance) will bring federal marshals to raid your business. Control means not having a domineering software company.

Since Mundie brought up money: Researchers have measured the input to the economy from open source, and it turns out to be huge.

A partial count of the software available in just one noncommercial Linux system released two years ago shows that it would have cost about $1.9 billion to develop the same software the way Microsoft does it. That system came about before the big companies joined in. No doubt the number would be even larger than $1.9 billion today.

But this is not to say that the main benefit of Linux and other GPL software is lower-cost. Control is the main benefit--cost is secondary.
Somebody paid for all of that free software: Individual developers paid with their free time, universities took public funding and reciprocated by making their work publicly available, and businesses freed their own intellectual property for commercial reasons. The plan was to set a standard, to get the benefit of a larger development staff than any one company could support, and so on.

If open source was economically unviable, development would have ceased long before there was $1.9 billion worth of it.

In the same speech, Mundie took a swipe at another sort of Liberty: the Liberty Alliance of many businesses to create a single sign-on that you can use on many different sites across the Internet. He said: "Rather than form a federation with Microsoft and work with what we had already created, there was this notion that the world should be offered an alternative."

Here, again, are assumptions you should not accept:

Mundie implies that Microsoft created the technology, without mentioning that it is based on the open-source Kerberos project from MIT. But this pales next to the assumption that the world needs a sign-in for the entire Internet that is controlled by Microsoft. Did you notice how the Microsoft antitrust prosecution suddenly became less of a priority after the U.S. presidential election? And now you want Microsoft to control more? It does seem appropriate to name their competition Liberty.