Cost of Open Source

Recently there have been couple of news regarding Open Source, and it forced me into thinking about it.

Bill Gates, at some event said

“there is this thing called the GPL, which we disagree with.” Open source, he said, creates a license “so that nobody can ever improve the software,” he claimed, bemoaning the squandered opportunity for jobs and business.

[full article]

Then there was a report saying

“Open Source software is raising havoc throughout the software market. It is the ultimate in disruptive technology, and while to it is only 6% of estimated trillion dollars IT budgeted annually, it represents a real loss of $60 billion in annual revenues to software companies,” said Jim Johnson, Chairman, The Standish Group International, Boston, MA

[original news]

That’s one interesting (up-side-down?!) way of looking at the phenomenon of open source. I never thought of it like that. Coming to think of it, it is absolutely true if you have a traditional businessman hat on your head.

Today one can fulfill all their computing needs - from web browsing to photo editing, from instant messaging to corporate email - by paying absolutely no money. For every computing activity there are free software tools available. One can argue, that if Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds (and countless other geeks like them) hadn’t happened and everyone had written programs to make money, then maybe all of them would have earned those $60 billion…. Economics has never been my strong point, but I don’t think economies run by so simple additions and subtractions.

Also there is another dimension to this argument. The above argument won’t hold good if one looks back 50 years, instead of last 20 years. No one would have believed 50 years ago, that you could make big bucks just by sitting in your garage for few months, punching some keys and creating nothing but a photo editing program. But the advancements in computing showed that you can do that. The computing revolution opened variety of venues and making money by selling software was just one of them. For obvious reasons that became the most attractive route; and to some people (traditional businessmen) it appeared to be the only one.

If one expands the scope of this argument beyond just decades, then I think the phenomenon of open source is creating enormous amount of wealth that we may haven’t yet recognized. Also I don’t think anyone could have stopped it from happening. It happened because it was the very natural thing to happen with software. And if it was something as bad as mentioned in above quotes, then by laws of evolution it would have died by now. (Taking my own advice above, I shouldn’t jump to theory of evolution based only on last 20 years. But we will see.) On the contrary, there are predictions (from reputed sources) that open source is going to thrive and will overtake the proprietary world in near future.

I think Bill Gates is an admirable personality who will be noted as one of the smartest businessmen in the history of world, but I don’t think he or M$ has done much good to the history of computing (their recent tactics undoing whatever good they might have done in their early days). There is something about people who fit in M$ culture. Their achievements or visions sound so wrong to me, even before I know they are affiliated to M$. I had read about Ray Ozzie and his startup Groove in Jessica Livingstone’s “Founders at work”. Almost every chapter of that book inspired me one way or the other, but I didn’t get Ray Ozzie’s story. His approach to technology - described in sophisticated business lingo - just bounced off me (call it my incompetence, but that’s the way it is). I wasn’t sure about my gut feeling, until recently I found it echoing in Joel Spolsky’s post (Yes, joelonsoftware fame). He describes Ozzie (who is now M$’s Chief Software Architect) as Architecture Astronaut, analysing Hailstorm project, or recent Live Mesh project. The whole article confirmed my views.

Just yesterday I read about this entrepreneur ‘Nathan Myhrvold’ on slashdot. This guy has come up with an innovative (?) idea of a company with bunch of smart people who just think about wildest ideas they can and patent them. His company doesn’t plan to implement or manufacture them, but just accumulate patents and then sell them to other big companies. I was just stunned. The idea is indeed innovative … a novel way of being as evil as one can imagine (in software industry perspective). Patent system is one of those systems that were conceived in the past for doing good in certain cases. But because these systems aren’t revised with time, evil doers use them for doing anything but their original good intent (like the reservation system in India). Patent trolls are exploiting this system to the disadvantage of innovative startups. The above mentioned company is just an “uber patent troll”. And yes… the guy is an ex-Microsoft CTO. What’s interesting from yesterday’s slashdot post is: there are links to two stories on same topic - one from NewYorker which cheers this new idea and another from an IP law firm which analyses the questionable intent. The contrast is noteworthy.

… so much for Microsoft bashing.

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