Does Open Source Matter?

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This is the third in a series of posts on the topic of open source. In the first, I spoke about some personal observations that would indicate, at the very least, open source isn't as important as it was two years ago when we were arguing it a lot and vendors were being driven to carry the open-source banner. I concluded that piece thinking that it wasn't that open source was dying -- in fact I never even suggested that. I suggested only that growth could be slowing, and that buyers were focusing more on what products actually did.


The responses to that first piece were generally reasonable, but some were accusing me of shilling for Microsoft, being brain dead, and/or ignoring Gartner and IDC predictions that would indicate otherwise. Of course if Gartner and IDC were saying Microsoft was surging, which Microsoft's own financials would certainly suggest, I'm sure these same people would argue the research firms were clueless.


My second piece discussed these attacks and suggested, as I have in the past, that the "free" in FSF, which is often compared to free speech, has nothing to do with free speech, and that supporters of open source appear to do their level best to ensure people don't question their movement (they even attack people who call it "a movement"). In some cases the attacks seemed to be designed to rewrite what I wrote and ensure people don't actually see my words -- if I can paraphrase, it was a FUD attack on me. This I found ironic given how, over the years, OSS supporters have complained loudly how evil companies like SCO were using FUD against them.


I argued that without the free flow of ideas, people couldn't make good choices. I and others can be wrong, but we can often be right, and if third parties -- be they OSS advocates, governments, or companies -- control the dialog, we get problems like the war in Iraq that probably otherwise would have been avoided.


I never suggested not using open-source products, but I did conclude that if buyers really wanted open source, they would have followed the FSF recommendation and not purchased the iPhone. So now I ask:


Does Open Source Matter?


I think that the reality is that for 99 percent of the people who buy and use products, it doesn't. If you can't read code, why would you care if you can? There is this central message of "freedom," but it doesn't really apply to a freedom that the average person identifies with. For instance, you are free to flap your arms and fly to the moon too, but if you can't do it, so what?


Now there is the DRM message and one of the areas where I agree with FSF is that DRM is wrong. But, from my perspective, it's also stupid, because DRM treats the people who actually legally buy products as if they are criminals and rewards the pirates. I can point to no other product where an industry actually works to make stolen goods more valuable than if they are legally purchased. And then they go after kids they have incented to pirate. I can't even create a good metaphor, because every possibility that comes to mind also sounds incredibly stupid.


But anti-DRM isn't really the same as open source. And too often, from my view, open source appears to be focused on anti-business with an emphasis on hurting the little guy. For instance, GPL 3.0 targets TiVo, which has found profit elusive, and gives Google and IBM, who are incredibly profitable, a pass. Why pick on the little guy -- except that you can - and how does putting TiVo out of business truly help me be more free? (Especially since it likely will only benefit the cable companies.)


In the end I see open source trying to matter, but organizations like EFF are simply more attuned (I'm actually a fan of EFF) to actually helping the average person out than FSF is. Clearly it will always matter to those that actively code, whether they support it or not. But outside of software, we really have no analog and that suggests, long term, it will likely continue to matter less.


In the end, I think people are simply getting back to evaluating products based on what they do, not on whether you can access parts of them you don't want to take responsibility for. Freedom, as in freedom of choice, remains important. It's just that this never really had a hard connection to open source in the first place and there are groups, both inside and outside of governments, who are better at protecting freedoms than FSF is.


I'll leave you with this. If you want to build a successful product, or choose a vendor that will best support you, focus like a laser on the core benefits and services that are required, anticipate what is needed but not yet asked for, and build something affordable that exceeds expectations. The only people who really want to see how you did that are your competitors, and you can probably live without helping them out that much.


Oh, and don't mix up open and transparent -- if someone doesn't have your best interest at heart, getting them to show you their underwear won't make them any less of a risk.