A Quick Essay on Open Source

Michael Leamy – Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The practice of open source has existed long before computers existed, the most obvious examples being things like recipes for cooking. In the computer industry it refers to the practice of allowing clients and users access to the source code of software in order to allow them to review and modify the code to suit their own ends. The Open Source model is, above all, a consumer centric model which allows consumer rights to prevail in the previous monopolistic model of direct competition between proprietary software sellers and their users. This is done using copyright licences, the most widely known and used being the GPL (GNU Public License.) A common misconception of the average uninitiated consumer is that they have never used open source software and they don’t know anything about it. This is primarily a misunderstanding based on the misinformation provided to the average consumer from parties who consider the sharing of knowledge and technology in such a non-monetized fashion a direct threat to their business models. The most famous of these anti-competitive parties would be Microsoft. A short and very incomplete example of the software used every day by North Americans which is open source would include the following;

  • Tivo: The DVR software used for almost a decade in the US. to record television programming and replay it later.
  • Mozilla’s Firefox: Known as the browser that ended the tyranny of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, it re-introduced the idea of standards compliance and innovation to a computer market who had become used to being fettered at every turn.
  • Google’s Android operating system: The fastest growing mobile phone software on the planet is 100% based on the Linux operating system. It has been forecast to replace the iOS (iPhone) within 1 year, and the SymbianOS (Nokia and also open source) within 3 years. It’s only foreseeable competition is thought right now to be the upcoming MeegoOS from Nokia and Intel, which is also 100% open source. Microsoft is not realistically considered to be in the game at this time.
  • The Internet: Ignoring entirely the myriad open protocols which have comprised the Internet since it’s very inception, the Internet runs mostly using the Apache server, which has always been 100% open source. For information purposes, Microsoft’s largest share of the server market has never realistically approached Apache, in spite of almost a decade of effort to dislodge it.

A few of the thousands of business and corporate entities who are known to use open source software include;

  • Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Ford, IBM, Palm, Oracle … actually, all of the fortune 500.
  • Many non-western governments such as China and Brazil, and some western governments such as Germany.
  • Most major stock exchanges including London, the Dow Jones, NASDAQ, Hong Kong, etc, etc, etc.

A major argument against Open Source has been it stifles innovation, and yet the last 25 years of computing argues directly against this. Almost every major advance in computing since Windows 95 has come from the open source world, with companies like Microsoft spending millions to discredit their efforts, and millions more attempting to re-create them. Even so called closed companies like Apple have invested heavily in open source, the most obvious example being it’s kernel. The virtual brain of a computer, the kernel that runs all Apple computers on the market today is based on the BSD kernel, which has always been 100% open source. Without this kernel Steve Jobs, the returned CEO of Apple Inc., would never have been able to restart Apple’s declining consumer mind share, and thus all the user interface innovations that have come from Apple since that time would simply not have happened. Think of a world without iPods, iPhones, iPads or even the iMac. His example is not the only one, as Google also states openly that without open source software they would never have been able to begin operations, primarily due to the onerous and anti-competitive cost of Microsoft server licences.

The most obvious manifestation of Open Source today would have to be the Linux operating system. In the computer world there is no argument that the Linux kernel, paired with any one of dozens of open source fronts ends, is the most powerful and the most flexible computing environment available anywhere on the planet today. Of the top 500 most powerful computer systems, fully 95% run open source Linux. No other operating system is as widely used as Linux in every aspect of computing, except for one very notable exception. The consumer desktop. On the average home computer resides Microsoft’s Windows operating system, and almost nothing else. Little wonder the average home user has hardly even heard of Linux or the Open Source movement. Even less wonder they haven’t heard of the 15 year battle Microsoft has waged against Linux and open source. It is perhaps the longest running and the best documented case of corporate anti-competitive behaviour ever studied in the modern world, and the war has raged invisibly, under the radar of almost every computer user today. Small wonder, as Microsoft stands to lose access to the largest cash cow ever devised, both through it’s sales of operating system licences, as well as from the sale of it’s secondary software, such as the Microsoft Office Suite. To ease your mind, it has generally been accepted that they have largely lost that war, but it hasn’t ended yet, and skirmishes which greatly harm consumer interests continue to hit the news on an almost daily basis. Consider these quick examples;

  • The near destruction of the ISO organization through Microsoft’s corrupt tactics in passing its (still) non-functioning Office Open standard to compete with the already very well established world standard the Open Document Format. Today Microsoft still doesn’t ship any version of its so called Office Open format, but instead a bastardized and fully closed hybrid they call docx.
  • The punitive measures taken against hardware makers who dared attempt to sell systems running Linux. The most recent example being the Netbook category, whose initial offerings as the Asus EeePC line where 100% open source Linux, but within 6 months of a wildly successful launch the diminutive Asus systems were forced to be upgraded to run the ageing Windows XP, or risk losing OEM pricing advantage. This might well happen again in the nascent tablet category, as Microsoft is faced with each and every one of it’s hardware partners now developing their own in house versions of Linux to run on their soon to be released tablets. Those who are not have already committed to the Android system from Google, again another open source system.
  • The BSA. The Business Software Alliance was created by Microsoft and a select group of major closed source software companies to discourage the use of open source and secondary market software that competes directly with their primary market offerings. The most well known and well documented method to discourage the uses of these two types of software is to carry out a blitzkrieg style of “audit” of a target company’s systems. These audits involve exhaustive on site forensic studies of hard drives, with no prior warning to the victim, usually installing software on these privately owned systems, and gaining access to these drives using veiled threats of greater legal repercussions if compliance is not immediate and complete. The audits invariably find unlicensed software, at which point the legal battle begins. Examples can be found in Victoria of companies who ended up settling these lawsuits for tens of thousands of dollar, but more often hundreds of thousands of dollars is the norm. These audits eventually contributed to the computer industries derisive term “the Microsoft Tax”, coined partly when Microsoft successfully sued, through the BSA, business’ using only open source software such as Linux. They argued that a computer cannot run without Windows, and no business could operate successfully without it’s software, and the judge agreed. The defendants were forced by the judge to pay for Microsoft licences on all of their computers, in spite of not having a single piece of Microsoft software installed on any one of them. This logical legal fallacy is still considered fact by a great many business leaders.

I will conclude by stating simply that the study of the rise of open source computing in the western world could easily be the study of the fall of our old business models. Digital music, movies and books have obsoleted great portions of the music, movie and publishing industries, and every aspect of our daily lives are being affected negatively by that particular war. No realm, no industry, is immune from the open source model’s ability to instantly give power and control back to consumers. Music, movies, books, design, planning, transportation, governance, even national sovereignty are all directly affected by this model, and the leaders who are charged with the task of leading their citizens into this future are all going to face some fundamental choices in the coming decades if their culture and society are to survive in a form recognizable to us today. The Internet was it’s first baby, and clearly the child has outgrown it’s parents. If we westerners expect to prosper in the next 50 years as we have in the last 50, we would do well to understand how the balance of power has shifted, and how we can participate in the development of this new evolutionary culture in a positive way.

Michael Leamy.