Does Open Source Matter?

Rob Enderle

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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 24, 2007 6:36 PM Kennon Keoseyan Kennon Keoseyan  says:
Wow, you are so out of touch with technology and the industry in general. Your grasp of it and the various players and issues is about on par with my depression-era born step father. I mean you go so far as to compare the FSF and the EFF as if you are comparing Ford to Chevy (gee I like one better than the other). You obviously have no idea what the hell you are writing about. The EFF and the FSF don't even work in the same space, even remotely the same space. It is like you Googled (or in your case MS Lived) some buzz words like DRM, and FSF and just kind of cobbled together some really incomplete notes as research. I hear Sunset magazine has some openings for freelance journalists, you might want to look into it. Reply
Jul 25, 2007 9:43 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I think my point was EFF is relevent FSF may not be. EFF is about helping the average person, FSF is about furthering an agenda that the average person probably doesn't even care about. Reply
Jul 25, 2007 3:13 PM Robert Pogson Robert Pogson  says:
Open-source means less lock-in. If a distributor/creator of FLOSS dies or goes away, you can still hire someone to work on the code and keep using it forever. If "proprietary" stuff reaches end-of-life, your usage is frozen in time with whatever bugs were present at the time. Reply
Jul 25, 2007 5:14 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Maybe, historically however the lock in has been to the folks who developed the solution. If people commented their code properly this likely wouldn't be the case but, assuming you are in the business, we both know that doesn't happen suggesting you still have a lock in it just may not (and I use the word may for a reason, as it could apply to a services organization) with a large vendor. You are correct, however, if you can access source you can take over support yourself (though painfully if the product is complex) for it. With a complex product that hasn't been properly documented I doubt it truly is likely, but at least it is possible.Folks have been pushing IBM to Open Source OS/2 (or at least were) for this very reason. Think it is way too late for that platform now regardless. Reply
Sep 14, 2007 6:08 PM Mikel Kirk Mikel Kirk  says:
I wonder if you remember me. It would give me a certain satisfaction if you did.Will the court's findings in SCO v Novell convince you you're barking up the wrong tree? Will their bankruptcy? Will all of the top OEMs offering linux preinstalled do it? Will anything?I know I'm feeding the troll here. I even left a link to this post on /. so you could get some more hits. There is a certain irony in this. You're getting ad revenue by being the most reviled analyst in the information technology field. Who knew that being notorious for being wrong could be so profitable? Will you even allow this honest comment past your filter?Free software works. Open Source works. Not only does Free and Open Source Software matter, it's fast becoming the only thing that matters. Dissenting opinions to This Fine Article and your position in general can be found here: http://www.google.com/search?q=Rob+EnderleNow I'll tempt you... you have my permission to reprint anything from those emails you still have here as responses to this comment under my real name in your blog. You got some press at the time branding the people who responded to you as zealots. Let's see how a zeal for truth stands the test of time. Reply
Sep 15, 2007 3:02 PM Theo Theo  says:
Mr. EnderleI actually wrote to you once, decrying your attacks on open source and your obscuring of issues (I believe it was on the topic of Windows security and your claims that it was more secure than OSS at the time, in 2003 or 2004, which it certainloy wasn't). You used that and the responses of countless thousands of others who were as upset about your bald distortion of facts as a FREE vehicle to get media attention.I think, to be honest, that you are very similar to John Dvorak in this behaviour, in that you deliberatly write wild extremist viewpoints simply in order to raise the hitcount on your site and garner media attention.Kind of pathetic, but if it works, oh well. Reply
Sep 15, 2007 5:17 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I don't recall ever saying that Windows, especially Windows XP, was or is more secure than Linux. Typically I say security depends more on the user with current generation products. With the proper skill set both can be made secure enough but Linux (due to its UNIX base) has a more secure foundation than Windows which traded that off for ease of use. Linux is also targeted less often (or we don't track the exploits with the same level of interest). The "wild view" here is that people mixed up "Open" and "Transparent". I'm assigned to most of the major news services, I really don't need to do this to get attention. Most of what I comment on has little to do with these posts. Why you folks have to constantly resort to charicter assasination is kind of sad really, and doubt it reflects well on you to the average reader. Reply
Sep 15, 2007 7:24 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Of course I'll leave the post, it actually makes a point I want made. Thanks for that. Reply

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