The Free Software movement limits its own future
Bradley M. Kuhn posted recently that “Open Core” Is the New Shareware
In it he trots out all of the usual misconceptions that the free software advocates frequently do about the open core model. But I give him credit for being direct about his Free Software allegiance (not purporting an open source one), and for describing what he imagines to be an ideal Free Software company.
The first move we have to make is simply give up the idea that the best technology companies are created by VC money. This may be true if your goal is to create proprietary companies, but the best Free Software companies are the small ones, 5-10 employees, that do consulting work and license all their improvements back to a shared codebase. From low-level technology like Linux and GCC to higher-level technology like Joomla all show that this project structure yields popular and vibrant codebases.
This identifies something that, to me, is the biggest flaw in the ideology of the Free Software movement – an end game that is unsustainable and unattainable.
As I have written before (in this post Misunderstanding open source #3: applying ‘Free Software’ religion to open source business models). I think it is important to imagine a future where the majority of software is free/open source software (FOSS). If that is something you think is desirable (and there are a lot of people who don’t), I think it is important to also imagine how we get there.
I assume that if Kuhn thinks that 5-10 person companies are the ideal ones to represent free software, then his ‘future’ for free software is a collection of 5-10 person companies stewarding all of the planet’s software. This implies little or no involvement from large software vendors or services companies like IBM, Oracle/Sun, and Microsoft. Not even medium sized or small companies can participate, only microscopic companies. Ask yourself this: in this future, can the software and support needs of most organizations and governments of the world be handled by this group of 5-10 person companies? Clearly not, this is ridiculous. Large organizations and companies require the products and support of much larger software providers. They require things like pre-sales support, RFPs, and service level agreements. They require 24×7 support worldwide. In this version of the future the open source vendors that exist cannot meet the needs of the mainstream markets. As a result the large proprietary software vendors survive happily, because the open source vendors do not provide a viable alternative. This is clearly at odds with the desires of the free software movement. They want to eliminate proprietary software and proprietary software companies, yet their behaviour ensures the survival of those things.
Aha! (you might exclaim) what about the example of Linux that Kuhn provides. Ok, lets examine that. Firstly you cannot use the original creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds, as a shining example of the virtue of free software because he frequently is critical of the free software ideology, he is not a free software advocate. Certainly you can point out that Linux is steered by a foundation and not by a corporation. But look at the board of directors of the Linux Foundation. As of today they are Larry Augustin CEO of SugarCRM (an dubious open core company, according to some), James Bottomley (Novell), Alan Clark (Novell), Wim Coekaerts (VP Engineering at Oracle), Masahiro Date (general manager of Fujitsu), Frank Fanzilli, Doug Fisher (VP Intel), Dan Frye (VP IBM), Bdale Garbee (Chief Technologist Hewlett-Packard), Tim Golden (Bank of America), Hisashi Hashimoto (Hitachi), Brian Pawlowski (NetApp), Chris Schlaeger (AMD), Tsugikazu Shibata (NEC), Eric Thomas (Texas Instruments), Christy Wyatt (VP Motorola). The mighty and free Linux is steered by a big software/hardware cartel – Novell (Microsoft’s Linux partner), Oracle, IBM, HP, Hitachi – and a chipset cartel – Intel/AM/TI/Motorola. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, in fact it is a good thing. What I’m saying is that using Linux as a ‘free software’ example is a big stretch.
The open core companies are trying to disrupt entrenched proprietary software markets. The free software movement dislikes proprietary software. They have a common enemy in proprietary software. The open core companies would welcome the free software movement as an ally, however the free software advocates choose open core as an enemy. What they don’t realize is that many potential open source companies are choosing between proprietary and open core – 100% open source is not an option. By inciting community members, as Kuhn does, to fork open core projects, he is creating an anti-open core environment that might persuade new start-ups to go proprietary rather than open core. The open core model is preferable to proprietary, but listening to the opinions of the free software advocates you don’t hear that message at all.
The path from a proprietary world to an open source one is a long one. It started over 20 years ago, and it will take another 20 years to get to the end. Maybe at the end the open core model will be a historical footnote. But along the road the open core model is a useful stepping stone that allows otherwise proprietary software companies to become at least partially open, on the way to full openness.