Dead man walking

I've been following with interest the various conversations on the meanings of 'open' and 'free' as applied to software, following on from a posting on Groklaw, and spilling over onto Simon Phipps's and Geoff Arnold's blogs. The original trigger for all this kerfuffle was a slightly dubious article on EWeek, which according to Simon Phipps was largely fabricated to make it look contentious. The Groklaw thread contains the usual quota of Linux conspiracy theorist rantings, as evinced by the following fairly representative snippet:

The intent is to get everyone to develop in C# or Java and then to use that lock-in to gain massive control over the market. Then, they can do things like pull Java support from Linux and sink Linux because all these Java apps will no longer run on it. Or... they can rake in the bucks by making the JVM cost money for "other platforms" (other than Solaris and Windows) and at the same time drive people toward those platforms. MS may have realized that everyone does not want Windows. So, they are making an alliance with Sun. The intent is to create an oligopoly whereby both companies conspire to herd the industry toward their products and above all *away from open source*.

I've expressed my opinion of these paranoid individuals in an earlier post, so I don't propose to rehash that again, I'll merely state that in any ecosystem monocultures are a bad idea, be it a Microsoft, Sun, IBM or even (Gasp!) Linux monoculture.

What I would like to say is that the increasing popularity and consequential commercialisation of Open Source is very much focused on the rights of those consuming OSS and not those producing it, and this has largely removed the attractiveness of contributing. Even the GNU philosophy statement is clearly slanted towards the interests of the consumer and not the contributor - as it says in only the third paragraph (the italics are mine):

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

A commonly repeated Open Source myth is that it is all 'Free', be that 'free as in beer' or 'free as in speech'. Well it isn't. The GNU GPL certainly doesn't fit my definition of 'free' as in 'completely unencumbered', it places some significant constraints on what I can and can't do with GPL software. I'm not saying that the restrictions are unreasonable, but to pretend that GPL == Free is disingenuous at best. It's also indisputable that the GNU crowd are pushing a political agenda, which may have been appropriate at one time when the Open Source movement was starting up but I'm far from persuaded that it is still appropriate. However like many radicals who have defined themselves by the presentation of their argument rather than it's content and goals, they seem unable to recognise that things have changed and they should therefore do the same. The other myth is that Open Source is zero-cost. Again, this is palpable nonsense. Most people who develop Open Source software are either doing it with the tacit agreement of their employers, or are doing it in their own time - neither of these are 'free' in my book, and that follows right the way through the entire Open Source food chain. Open Source is a bit like the UK National Health Service - it's free at the point of delivery, but one way or another we all have to pay for it in the end.

When the Free Software/Open Source communities first began to evolve there was an important attractor to them that seems now to be mostly ignored - not only was the software free, but individuals were free to contribute, and the community was open to all. Generally people joined an Open Source community because they couldn't scratch their particular itch any other way - either because their employers didn't provide them an environment in which they could contribute in the way they wanted to, or to get access to a peer group that would have otherwise been inaccessible to them. I remember when I began to contribute to the perl community - at the time I was in a job where I didn't have the opportunity to write code, and I got a real kick out of working with a group of peers, and in fact I still do. However the fact that large amounts of money are now washing around the Open Source world means that I for one would think very long and hard about becoming involved in anything else, when the Venture Capitalists might appear around the corner at any time - witness the MovableType fiasco that I've discussed in earlier posts. I don't think I'm alone in this, I've heard similar sentiments from my friends. Even the perl community has it's share of 'professional pundits' who see it as a quick and easy way to make a name for themselves, but by and large their opinions are only valued by those outside the community - we all know who they are, and how much they really contribute. Nobody minds people who have put a large investment getting something back, but people who take and don't give are generally treated with the scorn they deserve.

One example of the way the old 'grass roots' spirit is fast disappearing is the O'Reilly Open Source Conference. This actually started as the Perl Conference, but over the last few years it has become nothing more than a huge PR vehicle for the various Open Source pundits to read out a stream of press releases to the adoring Open Source wannabees. Rather than being a a chance for grass-roots folks to get together, the whole thing has become completely dominated by the various big-business backed agendas. The last one I went to in San Diego had the not-very-edifying spectacle of RedHat handing out fedoras to everyone who was going in to one of the conference sessions that Microsoft was holding - pretty pathetic really. And if I look at the list of featured speakers for this year's conference it is dominated by CTOs, VPs and managers - people who by and large are only capable of talking about Open Source rather than doing. Several of the people I know in the perl community now don't bother with OSCON, unless someone is paying for their ticket. In fact some of my colleagues went to OSCON last year, and when they came back I was asked in all seriousness if perl was dying, as there were so few perl people there. The answer is no, we've all gone elsewhere, for example the most excellent YAPC (Yet Another Perl Conference) series of self-organised grass-roots conferences. I went to YAPC/EU last year both to do the perl-related stuff and to hang out with my friends, and I'll be going to the conference in Belfast again this year for the same reasons - I certainly won't be going to OSCON if I can avoid it.

The current Open Source boom grew out of an unique set of circumstances, however I'm not sure that they actually exist any longer. Oh for sure the software that it has already given birth to will continue, but I just wonder how many of the quiet folks in the background who have put in the herculean efforts necessary to give Open Source life will be prepared to contribute to the new projects which must follow if Open Source is to survive. Big business has latched on big time, and I doubt that corporations with shareholders on their backs are going to be happy in the long run trusting their corporate family jewels to a load of scruffy geeks. It's quite amusing to see people scrambling over each other trying to be the 'Acceptable corporate face of Open Source', but by and large the people doing this aren't actually the ones who are producing the aforementioned Open Source - and if I'm the kind of person who has the skills to contribute and who enjoys working with others and doing cool stuff, why on earth would I be interested in helping out the leeches who just want to make a name for themselves off of my efforts? Any organism that carries too high a parasite burden will eventually succumb, and I fear the Open Source movement is rapidly reaching that point - a dead man walking.

Open Source is dead, long live Open Source.

Categories : Tech