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The Map is not the Territory

I'd like to start by thanking The Age/SMH for being thoughtful and open enough to publish at least two points of view on a situation, and IPI for taking the trouble to respond. In amongst the viewing-with-concern and damning-with-faint-praise there are some very educational statements, well worth spending the time to address.

Many of IPI's statments also underscore the growing disconnect between traditional business theories and modern field experience.

Before we get down to core issues, I'd like to get a couple of the leading misrepresentations in IPI's “reaction” out of the way. My statements about the risks of economic enslavement for the hoi polloi are not hyperbole, unless corporate convictions in both American and European courts for doing just that also count as hyperbole – in which case we all need new dictionaries.

Reasoning which disturbs you is not “a tantrum”, denying that you attack does nothing to lessen the reality of it, and striking a condescendingly parental pose doesn't confer any moral high ground. What does make a difference is honestly acknowledging what you're doing and setting about implementing it with clean hands. Which brings us to what IPI didn't say.

It is significant that IPI completely failed to address the issue of substantial “ground rules”. It's a critical point. A “free” market can only be so to the extent that the rules which enable fair and open dealing are enforced. A totally unfettered market is a shambles in which might makes right. If government intervention – however clumsy – is withdrawn to the extent advocated by IPI, private and entirely self-interested entities will step (as they always have) into the resulting power vacuum, with tragic results for the smaller players.

Nor have IPI addressed the matter of their silence on interventionist acts in and against other countries, another of which is arriving soon in the form of the ironically named and one-sided “Free Trade Agreement” now on the table between Australia and the USA.

Nor have IPI addressed the formidable barricade which overcooked protectionism represents against any citizen of a poorer nation who wants to get a foot in the technical and economic door.

All of this is almost as revealing as the topics IPI did react to. If I have “no knowledge” of IPI, they've wasted a great deal of time, money and energy on their website, which extensively praises the purportedly unstained virtues of playing dog-in-the-manger with concepts and ideas.

This blind idealism is exemplified by the statement “the world is wealthier and more prosperous than ever [...] due in no small part to innovative technology and health products developed [...] under the property-rights incentive model”. Pumps, sanitation, monogamy and mudbrick moulds? Sustainable agriculture? Micro-finance? Roadmaking? The cold-pot? Which of these was helped by patenting?

Leaving aside the tremendous advantage of being able to build a product without having to identify and pay royalties on a random and growing number of patents which might encumber it, only to risk finding out ex post facto and maybe in court that you missed one, this reasoning is parallel to deciding how much water a nation drinks by tracking tracking bottled-water sales alone.

The act of wrapping water in plastic and labelling it doesn't make the water any more useful or any more valuable to the people drinking it, doesn't add any measurable benefit to the water itself that you couldn't get out of carrying your own reuseable bottle. Increased sales signify only that people are expending more wealth in obtaining essentially the same water.

So it is with software. Each useful Open Source project is analogous to a free, clean and healthy tap in the eyes of the bottled water sellers, so they work hard to make bottled water and the supply chain and dispensers for it as irreplaceable as possible. Because bottlers have a greater concentration of resources than the typical tap-owner, they are able to exercise influence in places and ways that individuals can't.

As each available tap makes it easier for a citizen to get water, it is to the citizen's detriment when a bottler succeeds in removing or plugging a tap. So now the citizens are asking for balance. They are asking that taps be permanently returned to public facilities, no matter how many incentives the bottlers may offer to local officials to keep them out. They are asking for a minimum basic public standard, and this is exactly what governments are for.

Carrying the analogy back to software, the typical small Open Source based company or project has no realistic shelter from the effects of software manufacturer lobbying, no way to equal it directly, so they and their customers are asking their governments for balance in lieu of equality. Mandated consideration versus back-room lobbying power.

Leaving aside bluster about integrity, attempts to minimise the constant nagging pressure of the bottom line, and the ridiculous prospect of me checking with IPI before publishing (did they check?) in the hope of it reversing any core policies of more than a decade, the remaining IPI claims with any appearance of substance is that Open Source software has not yet proved itself, or that Open Source is running into limits.

I invite Mr Giovanetti to consider the Netcraft webserver survey. While popularity is not a strong measure of quality, to have a massive predominance of webservers running Open Source services on an Open Source platform implies that certain minima have been well and truly met. Another indicator of quality is the relative prevalence of webserver worms: the probes are all IIS-based, none are silly enough to aim for an Open Source webserver. Call it evolution in action.

Open Source isn't about “creating things and giving them away free”, it's about working together instead of against one another, about ensuring freedom and plenty rather than grabbing first for control and starving others out.

Open Source isn't hitting any limits, either, it's only just getting into stride. We don't desperately need intervention, but it will save a lot of waste and frustration as a new economic balance is found, one with a few more natural barriers in place against the spectre of corporate dominance.

The world's two biggest software cash cows are drying up, and unless the market sees more portability, flexibility and reasonable pricing, they'll be followed by a whole herd of others. Who would pay over AUD$1200 for image editing software if a customisable and free alternative was a few minutes away? Who would risk spyware and suffer ads when they can use clean, safe network programs whose every nook and cranny is available for inspection? Who would use a “virus flypaper” email program even for free when stable, secure, flexible competitors have been built by people seeking a better online experience rather than a lien on your firstborn? Why do people pay AUD$5000 for a Linux distribution when every piece of it is available under the GPL?

They do, you know. This is choice, independence. Real people like it. This is what IPI should be supporting.

There is something a little bit surreal about sitting in a meeting of the Jamaica Linux Users Group (JaLUG), in a cafe beside a waterfall — with Linus, Ted, Eric and other luminaries in the front of the room and an attentive audience filling the rest of the space — while a veteran local IBM executive stands up and describes the adoption of Linux by the company’s customers with adjectives like “huge”. — Doc Searles

Last changed: 09-Sep-2008 18:29:45  Find out who links to this page. Verify for yourself that this page is pure, standard HTML, not Ruby.

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