Wednesday, April 20, 2005

How Openness Saved Microsoft?

Linux online picked up this article from Rob Enderle: (Technology News: Software: How Linux Saved Microsoft). It put an interesting, well presented, spin on the relationship between Redmond and their pet hate of the moment: basically, the wonderful effect a bit of competition can have on a company's efficiency.
That's a novel notion.
He then went on to write off Open Source as a puff of wind that will be gone in a few years.
That's a novel notion, too!
Here, despite carefully defining Linux as not a product, and categorising Open Source as being based on a false premise (people don't want to look at code), Enderle appears to fall into what I shall call 'the Open Corporate Fallacy': the notion that something like Open Source, as a whole, can be treated as a business offering, provided by a corporate entity that is subject to the standard market forces.

It makes for easier analyses, but it is wrong. The reality is this:
  • Open Source is not a corporation: it is a variant of the Openness meme, and a very effective one.
  • Organisations like FOSS are manifestations of that meme, but they do not define or own it.
  • Linux is an instance of the Openness meme, not the meme itself.
  • Companies like Red Hat, Mandrake (or whatever they're going to call themselves) represent instances of a Linux distribution provider, not Linux itself. They make their profit from add-ons: training and consultancy.
Considering the dependencies of the above links, it should be clear that open source does not depend on companies, but vice versa. Individual corporations may come and go, but the concept remains.

I have written before that Openness is a concept that extends far beyond software (see also the cluetrain manifesto)

Infrastructure provision is where the Openness meme has its most natural expression and, in this day and age, Operating Systems are clearly an essential part of our society's fabric. The assertion that Enderle makes about most people not wanting to look at code (accessibilty being the fundamental tenet of Open Source) is no doubt true. But some do, and it doesn't take a huge percentage of the world's population to provide an adequate level of support.

Thus, I consider his extrapolation that companies who don't want to be in 'the software business', and will revert to a trusted provider once Microsoft get their act together is inaccurate. There is be no need to be in the 'software business' to benefit from Linux.

Nor do I think that internal schisms in Linux will be more likely to arise as Microsoft improves its image and ceases to be so easily defined as the common enemy. Openness thrives on constructive criticism! I suspect this prediction is based on the notion that competition is the sole natural driver. It isn't. Cooperation has been shown to produce benefits for its own sake, and not just to provide mutual protection. And, in considering 'the way it was back then', Enderle should note that Open source was around long before Microsoft was a monopoly.

Apart from natural acts of self defence to a policy of intolerance (eg software patents), practitioners of Openness really don't care about Microsoft. If Microsoft can reinvent themselves as a responsible and accountable corporation, that will be to the greater good.

And if Linux is seen to have been a primary force in that reinvention, well, isn't that the underlying purpose of Openness?


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