Computers view reality in the simplest of terms. It is either yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. You can’t blame computers for this, their binary view on reality is is hard-coded. As Wikipedia explains, the computer’s memory cells only have two states. This binary outlook on life can take us a long way. Just consider the strengths and complexities of our modern desktop computer, our mobile phone of the AI of a few popular first person shooters. We spend a lot of time interacting with systems that think and work binary. As a Dutch saying goes, what you hang out with tends to rub off on you. And before we know it, we also begin to organize the world around us along simple binary lines: yes or no, black or white, right or wrong. In the open source world we find people who spend a lot of time behind their computers.
Granted, I am not a expert on human brains, but I think we agree that our brains are somewhat more complex than the memory cells of a computer. Humans are unique beings, shaped by a package of genes, passed along at birth, and a collection of experiences within a social, cultural and biological context (and then some more). Both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ collaborate to create greatly complex individuals. In order to grasp this complexity we tend to simplify reality, for instancy by stereotyping. Okay, this is enough Dr.Phil-psychology for now. In essence, humans and human organizations are not binary, they cannot be binary in my opinion. But, in the open source world we find people who spend a lot time behind their computers.
The downside to a binary view on reality
In this open source world we regularly see heated debates following clear and simple binary schemes. Just think about the classical vi versus emacs, or GNOME versus KDE, but also the ‘my distribution’ versus ‘the other crap’ debates. These flame wars are somewhat amusing, entertaining, at least for the onlookers. However, there is a downside to this binary outlook, one that seriously hinders the growth of open source software. There a various areas where this comes to the fore, but for now I’d like to focus on one area: Microsoft.
Or, in broader terms, the relationship of open source communities with large corporations. In binary Microsoft is, of course, always wrong, black, ans we should view everything this company does with the utmost suspicion. Heck, the key motto of the Redmond Boys is ‘embrace, extend and exterminate‘. Another major corporation, IBM, is one of the ‘good guys’. IBM has been investing in Linux for quite a few years, released software under open source licenses and uses part of it’s patent portfolio to defend the interests of Linux and open source. Sun Microsystems, just to name a third example, has a more awkward relationship with the open source world. It doesn’t really have the image of a stalwart defender of open source, but -on the other hand- it did open up serious crown jewels, not end-of-life software. Just think about OpenSolaris, OpenOffice.org, Java and ZFS. But does it mean that IBM and Sun Microsystems should be put on the good side in the binary scheme of open source?
Let’s take a closer look at IBM. It is an active partner in the development of Linux and has 600 people on it’s payroll who contribute to open source projects. Now that’s a nice number, but – for simple comparisons – IBM has 388.000 people working for it. Another contribution to Linux was to give free access to 500 patents in 2005. True, the core philosophy of free and open source software shuns applying for and using (software) patents, but in the current corporate reality it is nice to know that patents can also be used to defend Linux and open source. 500 patents seems like a a lot, and perhaps IBM even increased it’s number of free access patents, but we are talking about the king of patents. Year after year IBM has been the largest applicant for new patents (and obtained them). In 2008 IBM obtained more patents than Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture and Google combined: 4.186. The man responsible for this patent portfolio, David Kappos, is to become head of the USPTO, the US patent office.
Does this in any way diminish the contributions IBM made and is still making to Linux and open source? Of course not, but it does show that IBM had multiple commercial interests, and Linux plays a part in at least some of them.
Opening up Microsoft
Microsoft and Linux didn’t really have a good start. Most of us still remember Steve Ballmer’s words, making comparisons with rapidly growing malignant cells and such. Not nice at all. But things have changed since those dark days and Microsoft did move towards more open source. The various steps Microsoft took are described in my latest book Open source en open standaarden. Voor niets gaat de zon op? (Open source and open standards. For free?, only available in Dutch).
No, Microsoft isn’t an open source company and the chances that it will release the source code of Windows under the GPL v3 license are virtually nil. But with Codeplex, Port 25, two OSI approved licenses and an ambassador like Sam Ramji Microsoft does have an open source policy. And a vision, which you can find in the white paper Participation in a world of choice. Perspectives on open source and Microsoft (PDF). You can argue about this vision, you can vehemently disagree with it, but there is a track record now.
And no, I am not blind to the patentprotection based deals with some distributors of Linux, not deaf to the threats that Linux violates a couple of hundred patents and the recent legal battle with TomTom is still fresh on my mind (by the way, for those who read Dutch, you might find this article interesting. It’s an interview I had with Keith Bergelt of the Open Invention Network, earlier this year). I do wonder how useful it is to develop .Net applications for Linux through Mono, or porting Silverlight via Moonlight, but I have a similar response reading about attempts to port KDE Applications to Windows using Qt. However, the world isn’t binary, people aren’t binary and that means I am under no obligation to make sense of it all.
Companies have commercial interests
Why does Microsoft get involved with open source? In my opinion for exactly the same reasons as IBM, Sun Microsystems, HP, Nokia, Google and TomTom doe it: it has commercial value and contributes to it’s strength in the market place. Linux, open source and open standards go from strength to strength among customers, both corporate and governmental. Any corporation with a strategic sense makes sure to pick up a trend like this sooner or later and thus cater to the demands in the market.
How does this involve us, as open source world? Well, to repeat myself, the world isn’t binary and human organizations aren’t binary. Companies aren’t monolithic structures where all think alike, especially not corporations that operate on a world scale. If we look at the aforementioned corporations I believe we can discern at least three different groups within each of them (see, no longer binary). You will find people that really believe in the commercial value, and perhaps even the superior quality, of open source software for their company. These are not the guys and girls that spend days after days designing the darkest of strategies to kill open source as soon as possible.
At the other side of the spectrum you will find employees, managers and (vice-)presidents who completely and absolutely reject a business model where you don’t sell software (or better, licenses), but give it away. They look at the history of their company and to those units that actually make profit and wonder who their ‘open minded’ colleagues really work for. Somewhere in between you can find a large group that just goes to work.
It is a serious weakness of our binary outlook when we, as open source world, automatically condemn open initiatives of ‘suspicious’ or ‘wrong’ corporations as being part of some ‘hidden agenda’. Just a quote from the Linux Collaboration Summit held earlier this year:
Much of the discussion related to Microsoft and its rocky relationship with open source software. Ramji, who runs Microsoft’s open source software lab and plays a role in influencing Microsoft’s open source strategy, faced some tough questions from fellow panelists and the audience. He was not flustered by the inquisition and responded with cogent thoughts and some witty retorts.
Now ask yourself the question whether this form of debate is really constructive. For the onlookers it might be entertaining to see and the participants might go home with a warm feeling they finally told it to the Sam Ramji’s of the wrong corporations (you can fill in any other name you like, it seems Miguel de Icaza is tossed in the same corner nowadays). Personally, I’d like to think at the upcoming budget meeting. “Hey Sam, they really did burn at that Linux conference last weekend. By the way, didn’t you request extra budget for your department?” Simplistic reasoning? Perhaps, but any student of corporate snake pits knows how little is eschewed when it comes to power over people, money and influence.
Towards an alternative strategy: ’embrace and extend’
I believe it makes more sense to adopt the ’embrace and extend’ strategy. Accept each and everyone who has an open source profile, even if they work for or in ‘suspicious’ corporations and organizations. Embrace them, make them public representatives of a worldwide open source community, the lost sons and daughters who are welcomed back in the fold. Present them as the ‘good guys’ who have a perfect understanding of the market place, of customer needs. But don’t make them the prime targets for attacking their employers. The campaign to promote open source software is served more by increasing the numbers of open source people within major corporations and allowing their influence in strategic corporate decisions to grow.
This seems to be a more positive and constructive use of our time as well. Pursuing a negative, almost paranoid anti-Micro$oft campaign doesn’t bring new building blocks, creates no new open source software, doesn’t lead to new open standards and won’t convince users to switch to Linux. And then, who will have won?