Is This The Right Room For An Argument About Open Source? - InformationWeek

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7/27/2009
10:47 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Is This The Right Room For An Argument About Open Source?

Any discussion about open source that doesn't bristle at least some hairs isn't worth having. That doesn't make the other guy right -- but it does mean nobody's going to learn anything as long as we just pat each other on the shoulder. Some conflict is vital.

Any discussion about open source that doesn't bristle at least some hairs isn't worth having. That doesn't make the other guy right -- but it does mean nobody's going to learn anything as long as we just pat each other on the shoulder. Some conflict is vital.

I came to this conclusion after reading two pieces about open source, each with totally different tones, outlooks and conclusions. The first is from Glyn Moody, "Of Purists and Pragmatists", in which he talks about the ongoing debate between the live-or-die-by-open-source camp and the open-source-is-just-a-way-to-get-things-done camp:

As a spectator and armchair commentator on these events over the last decade and a half, I have to say that I think this kind of thing [arguments over open source] is good for free software. Debates of this kind help expose weaknesses and refine arguments; because there is a wide spectrum of beliefs and practice involved, free software is able to grow in all directions, and is not slavishly following any particular orthodoxy.

Drop the word "free" from the above quote and it's even more accurate. Software development as such should not have to slavishly follow, etc., because that limits the scope of its vision. Open source as cancer is just as unproductive a view as open source as inevitability; there's happy ground between those two poles. And sometimes the only way you find that medium is by having the two collide a bit.

Item the second, from a blogger by the name of "Piestar", is more openly jaundiced and negative -- but even so there's a kernel of truth here and there in his discussion. He felt the whole concept of "free as in beer" was dead wrong -- nobody gives you beer for free, for one -- and set out to attack it.

Name me any other discipline where you expect to get anything for free.  Architects will not design you a free house, Lawyers will not defend you for free (unless it is in their best interests), People will not wash your car, house, clothes or computer for free.  And pretty much nobody will fix your computer for free.  Yet is expected and even considered immoral to charge money for software! (Yes, I know you can sell software for money according to the GPL.  What everyone loves to gloss over is the fact that anyone you sell it to can just give it away for free - so you will very soon be competing against your own product, but free.  The GPL is fundamentally incompatible with conventional for-profit software sales.  There are some choice early RMS quotes where he basically says this - the only reason for-profit sales are allowed is that they are unworkable.)

The argument's flawed, to be sure. He doesn't talk about "open core", for instance, where basic functionality is given away and you charge something for expanded functionality that's well within the realm of what professional users need and can afford. But he makes one point worth remembering: there is no way to completely bury the cost of software; it always costs someone something.

My point is that neither of these arguments -- nor the orthodoxies they discuss or are aimed at -- are conclusions. They're parts of a larger discussion, where what seems like grousing on an ordinary day may turn out to be wisdom -- and vice versa. If open source doesn't encourage this sort of thing from within, then it'll be easier to discourage open source from without.

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