Linux and Open Source Software

Jason Quintana's picture
Submitted by Jason Quintana on Thu, 2006-02-23 19:57

During the last week I've been fiddling around with Linux. I installed a small Linux partition on my laptop and I am actually impressed with how good it is. The interface is clean, it multitasks very well and everything is free. Included or downloadable is all of the software --
An office suite, a web browser, media player etc etc. While for several reasons I don't think Linux is ready to compete with Microsoft as a legitimate alternative for the average user it is certainly moving in that direction.

So this begs the question. Can this free, open source software model compete with heavily capitalized software companies like Microsoft? I couldn't imagine something like this working in any other industry. This is the only case I have ever witnessed of a communal property production model having the potential to someday compete with privately owned capitalist businesses and privately owned intellectual property.

- Jason


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Linux and Open Source Software

tfar's picture

I can no longer lurk! There have been many years of discussion regarding the pros/cons of Open Source v Closed Source software development. The argument obviously still rages but the result will usually be that the best solution for a specific software task is the one that most closely meets the requirements of the job regardless of its origin and licencing terms. A free software solution may not be the most cost effective in the long term, unless of course you pay me to manage it for you!

It should be known that the Open Source model of development is explained most clearly by a seminal tome called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" written by that most ardent of Libertarians, Mr Eric Raymond. His OSS credits include Fetchmail, one of the Internets most widely used email transport programs. His contribution to OSS was also one of the major reasons for Netscape deciding to open source the Netscape Mozilla web browser and resulting in the extremely competitive and arguably superior alternative to MS Internet Explorer that we now know as Firefox.

Quotable
"How does one get involved [in libertarianism]? Think about freedom, and act on your thoughts. Spend your dollars wisely. Oppose the expansion of state power. Promote 'bottom-up' solutions to public problems, solutions that empower individuals rather than demanding intervention by force of government. Give to private charity. Join a libertarian organization; the Libertarian Party, or the Advocates for Self-Government, or the Reason Foundation. Start your own business; create wealth and celebrate others who create wealth. Support voluntary cooperation." -- Eric S. Raymond

I work in a Unix world. Microsoft would have to pay me to use their userland products. Even then I would decline because despite some good development tools they simply aren't good enough to satisfy my technical needs. What really irks me though is that despite twenty years of public and private expenditure on making people computer literate, most still are not! If a computer interface does not have a Microsoft flavour 90% of the computer using population are incapable of using it. MS have done an incredibly good job of marketing a very poor product, and the argument people make that it has made computing accessible to them when it otherwise might not be is simply indicative of the dumbing down that is occurring throughout society as a whole because people don't want to have to think about what they are doing.

The Open Source development concept is far from being a Socialist system. It could be argued that it embodies all the attributes of; freedom to create a product; liberty to distribute it within the terms of the licensing method you prefer; and the right to charge for all its associated professional support services at a level commensurate with the authors skill and expertise if the users do not want or have the ability to handle it themselves.

Now, the page editor tells me that my web browser does not support WYSIWYG editing. As if I would use HTML in a forum post anyway! Maybe I will write a plugin with this feature and in the true spirit of philanthropy donate it to the world of computing.

PMT

sjw's picture

LOL!

SOLOGeek sounds like a good idea. The nature of software development (where the developer routinely creates massive numbers of units) is an area where Objectivist epistemology can be used with a particularly good effect, and there seem to be a large number of Objectivist software engineers.

But how about going a bit more general: SOLOEngineer?

SharpDevelop

sjw's picture

Duncan:

Sponsoring feature development is a great idea. But there's something wrong with a system that lets millions of other businesses benefit without them paying a dime, and lets software engineers who produce big hits starve or be forced to work for someone else at barely above industry average wages. In their model, none of these software engineers' success is ever going to correspond to the benefits others reap.

Just look at the leaders--the guys who would correspond to CEO's in the world's biggest companies. Linus Torvalds creates this massive value of building the kernel in the first place and then managing its development over years, and even a few years ago was working a day job while he managed Linux at night, and is definitely not rich like he ought to be. On the other hand, you can be pretty sure that CEO's of businesses like Red Hat, SuSE, etc. are making millions--essentially off of Linus's work (they add their own value of course--but the primary value was created by Linus and they don't pay him a dime for it).

In spite of Adam's obfuscation--this is not Capitalism. In Capitalism, money flows to the creators of great values, which frees them to create even greater values. In a Capitalist setup, Linus would be like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and would dedicate his whole time to it and have the resources to hire top talent instead of having to rely on altruism to get it.

Sorry, but that's absolutely

Marnee's picture

"Sorry, but that's absolutely incorrect - I think you are confusing Open Source Software (also known as Free Software) with public domain software."

Duncan, you are right. This is what I meant. I was trying to make a distinction between a Commons and what is generally considered Open Source.

...I think it is best to look at these "communities" not as a business model but a market. Its a free market of ideas for the most part, not a business. And as in any free market you can do as you please, according to the agreement between parties, etc. At least that has been my experience so far.

Massive non-sequitor

sjw's picture

Adam: Lots of bad things are caused by altruism, it doesn't make them a conspiracy. But that's Objectivism 101, isn't it?

Don't worry! :-)

Lindsay Perigo's picture

If it's that prissyholic Coates again, don't worry about it. You *did* start a good heated discussion. Shayne's had PMT all day & Adam can't seem to disagree without being condescending, but at least no one's calling anyone else a baby-killer.

Given how quickly this discussion lit up, I wonder if we should have a SOLOGeek? Smiling

Really?

Duncan Bayne's picture

Care to share the link? I'm curious to know what said elder has to say on the issue ... probably something along the lines of handwringing and pleading "can't we all just get along?" Smiling

Anyway, back to the topic at hand: I'm just downloading SharpDevelop, and noticed this on their site:

SharpDevelop is free, however, if you think it is useful and want to support its development, then make a donation. Note: In case you want to sponsor a feature, then contact us.

So their business model is effectively to sell feature development: if you want a particular feature, you hire them to do it.

This thread has received outside attention.

Jason Quintana's picture

An Objectivist "elder" has posted portions of this thread on another site as an example of bad, socially destructive behavior Smiling Here I was patting myself on the back for starting a good heated discussion!

In any event -- things could be a bit more relaxed here. So relax a bit, but please continue. I appreciate all of the responses from people who clearly are experts and have considered these questions before. Adam's points on the economics of software were excellent.

- Jason

Who?

AdamReed's picture

Shayne Wissler asks, "Adam: Who introduced the idea that open source is a socialist plot?" The proposition was not stated explicitly, but I find it difficult to read your statement that "the bulk of the money that backs open source is coming directly from altruists" to mean anything else. I was just refuting the nonsensical notion that Open Source funders, such as the corporations that fund the Apache Consortium, are acting out of altruism. As I pointed out, they are funding Apache because that is the most effective way to increase their own productivity and their own profits. Welcome to Capitalism, Shayne.

Socialist plot

sjw's picture

Adam: Who introduced the idea that open source is a socialist plot? Well, I know the answer: no one. So the next question is: why did you want to make it look like someone said something so idiotic as that?

Negative scarcity

AdamReed's picture

The frequent superiority of open source software (OSS) is not a socialist plot - it is the natural praxeological result of negative scarcity. With traditional physical goods, the more you give away the less you have left for yourself: scarcity. With OSS, the more you give away the more value you get for yourself: negative scarcity.

For example, apache was developped by a consortium of some of the world's largest web-based businesses. The cost of giving it away is just a matter of putting the distribution on one of their many servers: negligible. But here are some of the benefits that the members of the apache consortium get for themselves:

1. Apache is tested on millions of servers, so that all bugs are found and fixed quickly. This results in a level of security and robust operation that cannot be approached by any means economically available to closed-source vendors.

2. To the user, a major benefit of OSS is that one can fix bugs quickly and without depending on anyone else. Then, if a user fixes a bug, the only way for this fix to remain automatically available in future releases is if the fix is contributed to the code base. Then the businesses that fund the apache consortium also get the benefit of the fix. The total benefit of contributed fixes typically exceeds cost of the funder's contribution to the apache consortium.

3. If an innovator adds a new capability, the only way for this new capability to remain automatically available in future releases is if this new capability is also contributed to the code base. Then the businesses that fund the apache consortium get to use it too. The total benefit of contributed capabilities greatly exceeds the beneficiary's cost of funding the apache consortium.

There is more, but the above should be enough to make clear that open source is not socialism; it is merely the rational application of objective praxeology in the context of negative scarcity, and therefore it is just one more form of capitalist trade.

It was at that wonderful transition point ...

Duncan Bayne's picture

... where DOOM II etc were still common, but a lot of Quake and Motor Racer (IIRC - the motorcycle racing game with the fun but woeful physics engine) was played too.

Hmm... You raise an interesting point.

JulianP's picture

Hmm... You raise an interesting point. I'll have to think about it over the weekend. Right now I'm elbow deep in code... Smiling

Hey Duncan

Andrew Bissell's picture

A P200 with a Voodoo I card? Tell me, were you guys playing Quake or was this an old-school Doom LAN party?

Oh I'm a geek alright - just

Duncan Bayne's picture

Oh I'm a geek alright - just one who works out and loves weapons and motorcycles. Believe me, it's *entirely* possible to be a Geek of Motorcycling, a Geek of Weaponry, *and* a Geek of Computing. Speaking of which, must finish my proposal on an XML-based Geek Gode ... Eye

One of the fun conversations I've had was when invited to a LAN party back in my teens. A biking friend told me about it and said "but you'll probably not be going, because you'll be bored to tears hanging out with geeks", and a programmer friend told me about it because he knew I'd be keen to try out my P200 with Voodoo I accelerator card Smiling Neither realised that I lived a dual life Smiling

I think the thing about the LGPL is that it's explicitly designed to work with both open- and closed-source software. I personally like the clause that requires changes to the LGPL'd code to be released, as I think that's simple fairness.

A clue as to the pro-commercial (or at the very least, commerce-agnostic) nature of the LGPL can be seen in the way the FSF is desperately trying to downplay the LGPL - hence the change from 'Library GPL' to 'Lesser GPL'.

Duncan

sjw's picture

I don't agree with you about LGPL and from your picture I'm kinda thinking you're not a geek Eye

In any case, I think you are wearing shoes that likely do not fit--I did not mean to impugn all "geeks"--just one very large and important class of them. (I'm probably considered a geek by default given my profession as a software developer and that Joss Whedon Is My Master).

Objectivist in an altruist culture

sjw's picture

Julian: I'm not trying to impugn any particular open-source user or creator; it's the system itself that's the problem. Going back to the post office analogy: Is someone bad just because they work for the post office? Of course not. The system is what it is, and often we just have to work within it. But that doesn't mean that the system is right.

Open source indeed solves some problems that commercial companies have left on the table. It also creates new ones. E.g., why should a creator of an important open-source program ever have to work for anyone but himself, doing yet more things like it? Why should businesses who gain great value from open source never have to pay? How is that good economics?

I don't criticize open source because there's a better alternative available; I criticize it because there's not, but could be, and should be, at least if the world weren't ruled by altruists.

I think we're agreed on the

Duncan Bayne's picture

I think we're agreed on the issue of the GPL - although I'd argue that the LGPL belongs with the BSD license in the spectrum of benevolence.

What I took issue with was this statement of yours:

"unfortunately, this particular blind spot is common to a disturbingly large number of software "geeks", and indeed, is behind their notorious lack of respect for intellectual property (see, for example, any GNU software advocate)."

Perhaps I'm being over-sensitive about this, but I consider myself a GNU software advocate (in that I use and recommend software licensed under the LGPL, and indeed the entire concept of open source software), although I see it fitting into a particular niche, not the be-all and end-all that some people think it is.

I suspect you've formed your opinions of free software based upon encounters with the rabid "information wants to be free" and "property is theft" chanting Marxists who sadly constitute a large proportion of the OS community.

I use it too

sjw's picture

I use open source in my own development--but I do restrict libraries I incorporate to truly benevolent forms, not LGPL, but BSD style. I would not recommend any Objectivist supporting GPL in any form, even if it does cost a few hundred.

You are mixing up a lot of things in your response. For one, I never said that using open source was evil, I never said that using it meant that you were violating IP rights. Where, EXACTLY, did you get those presumptions out of what I wrote?

It may come as a shock to you, but I'm against the US postal service, and I actually use it too! Even though I could pay more and FEDEX everything. Amazingly, I can be against something, considering it not merely non-ideal but outright wrong, but still use it! I guess contradictions exist after all?

Contributing towards an open

Duncan Bayne's picture

Contributing towards an open source project benefits all who use it, including the contributor. E.g. consider our use of Drupal. In deciding to improve it (in accordance with our requirements) I am effectively gifting the product of my labour to the Drupal community (both users and developers).

*BUT* - and this is an important aspect - Drupal has allowed me and Julian to get this site up and running quickly, easily, and with an absolute minimum of cost.

It is in our best interests to contribute towards this project - keeping it current & active, which leads to regular security fixes, plugins, etc. etc. In short, I look at use of an open source product as a two way process - taking it & using it, while at the same time contributing where possible to on-going development.

Government funding of open source is an interesting issue. Obviously direct funding shouldn't happen - it's as bad as Government funding of arts, sports, etc. Not only is it theft from taxpayers, but it distorts the market for software.

However, what of Government *purchase* of software? Let's say you want an RDBMS to run the Police database on (the Police being one of the things a just Government should run).

Would you choose an expensive, consultingware-model commercial database or, if there was a suitable open-source alternative, would you choose that?

The advantages are clear: no purchase cost, ease of maintenance (your own IT specialists have access to the code), you can find back-doors, security flaws etc. and fix them yourselves. Sure, there'll be a signficant cost of ownership (just like with the closed source RDBMS) but the difference is simple: control.

I agree with your points - but...

JulianP's picture

Hi Shayne,

I agree with your points. I think what you've said is true for most open source software out there.

However, what about companies that open-source a product with the explicit purpose of making a profit from it? For example, hooking users on the 'community versions', and then selling enhanced versions. This also generates a lot of goodwill - a powerful marketing technique.

There are also companies (like Oracle?) that make the bulk of their money from providing service and support. Oracle, for example, has just bought MySQL, the open source database, after buying InnoDB recently. Larry Ellison is definitely not planning to make a loss from those.

However, as I said, I agree that most (but not all) open-source software is there because of altruistic individuals or government funding.

Cheers
Julian

Perhaps ...

Duncan Bayne's picture

... he's objecting to your characterisation of developers and advocates of open source software as altruists opposed to intellectual property rights.

Some of us are benevolent. For example ...

A project I worked on (commercially, at my last job in fact) needed an FTP library. We had a choice: use a commercial library (at a cost of several hundred dollars), or use an open-source library. I chose the latter.

We built against the library (released under the LGPL). I found a bug in it, and spent a few hours adding unit tests to replicate the problem, fixing the problem, and submitting patches back to the project owner as per requirements in the LGPL.

How, exactly, was I acting in an altruistic fashion? It was in my best interests to use that library, and the terms of use included submitting my changes back to the owner, which I did.

How, exactly, was I acting in an anti-IP fashion? I respected my employers rights by running the decision to use an LGPL'd library by them, and the project owners rights by submitting my changes back to him as per the license.

Furthermore, if that bug had been in a closed-source library, how exactly would *I* have fixed it? I've had some remarkably poor experiences with closed-source software (Crystal Reports and InstallShield spring to mind).

Also, did you see the little Drupal icon in the bottom-right-hand corner of the page? Yep, SOLOPassion runs on open-source software: PHP, Apache, MySQL, Drupal.

And, just to give you a heart-attack, I'm planning a coding session this weekend in which I'll add a feature to Drupal that we need here on SOLO, and then - the shock, the shock - *give* those changes to the owners of the Drupal project for them to do with what they will - as per the license agreement.

Right, rant over, back to work (writing closed-source, commercial software I might add).

Please, don't compound the mistake

sjw's picture

Sanjay is probably referring to some context-dropping quibble, as in my statement: "Almost everything of note they have ever done has been mere cloning and tweaking of something a commercial company did." Which, true enough, wasn't precise--as some individuals make great things and then donate it to the "community"--which then proceeds to tweak (no cloning required in the case of donations).

Well, it was my mistake to

sanjay's picture

It was my mistake to reply to your posting. But I do suggest you read my posting carefully.

Sanjay

Understanding Open Source

sjw's picture

To determine the validity of Open Source is easy in principle: follow the money.

I know of no such study, but I think you will find that by far the bulk of the money that backs open source is coming directly from altruists. Either it came from pointlessly generous companies (whether in donating their designs or the source code itself), from their not being able to protect their IP, from government-funded "research", from employees stealing time from their employers, or simply from misguided or explicit altriusm on the part of individual contributors in the form of their own efforts or from stealing the efforts of others (see the GNU manifesto and their sanction of reverse-engineeering).

In any case, I think you'll find that it's not driven by egoistic, profit-seeking motives--not by a long shot in fact--and that precisely because of this, it undermines such motives. Broadly, it truly meets a need, however illegitimately, and because of that, it makes it that much more difficult for a legitimate company to compete.

Open Source doesn't work

sjw's picture

Well that's a nicely distorted view of history.

Emacs was not created by "the community"; it is purely a creation of Richard Stallman, funded in part by MIT's AI lab; Python was likewise created by a single individual--Guido van Rossum; and Ruby was also created by a single individual--Yukihiro Matsumoto (funded in part by a company he worked for). I don't know about autoconf in particular, but I don't think that's a particularly noteworthy tool either.

Now it's true that "the community" tweaks and tweaks these creations ad infinitum, and it's true that these originators donated their works, but to say they are products of "the community" is a bizarre distortion of history.

The romantic view I hold is in fact the correct view. Of course UNIX & C built in various ways on previous technology--almost every human achievement builds on previous work (even Rand used the English language for example--a language created by others). But to claim that UNIX built on its predecessors in the same manner as Linux parasitically copies UNIX is to grossly fail to grasp the nature of these kinds of creations--unfortunately, this particular blind spot is common to a disturbingly large number of software "geeks", and indeed, is behind their notorious lack of respect for intellectual property (see, for example, any GNU software advocate).

I don't want to address every trifling bit of nonsense in Sanjay's post, but the part about Sun not being anti-business is truly incredible. How can he not be aware of their zealous anti-trust activity against Microsoft? If that's not anti-business I don't know what is.

There are many technologies

There are many technologies available in BSD, GNU/Linux and MACH kernels that are not found in the Windows kernel and a lot of academic research is not possible with closed source kernels. Microsoft would not have many of the technologies (think mosaic, apache, and the modern BSD TCP/IP stack) if it were not for the voluntary effort of open source developers. They may contribute code for free, but it is much like an intern in business, you learn invaluable skills by trading your time on open source projects. I would not be a good programmer if I hadn't cut my teath developing python/Zope/Plone software (or at least it would have taken much longer). 

Re: Open Source doesn't work

sanjay's picture

Before I begin: I am good at Linux, and UNIX in general. I am also a very good programmer. I own a Mac laptop, and my home desktop dual boots to windows XP and Linux. At work, I use XP. And, I love Unix-like OS (primary reason for choosing Mac for a laptop). So you know where I stand.

"Almost everything of note they have ever done has been mere cloning and tweaking of something a commercial company did."

Not true. Classic examples for development: Emacs editor, Autoconf/Autotool development tools, languages python, ruby.

"The core technologies, UNIX & C, were created by Bell Labs. The initial act of creation is the real magic. Any intelligent programmer with enough time can hack out a clone, but it's far rarer to be able to synthesize a new vision of how a computer operating system should work."

Not accurate. No current operating system was conceived by a single programmer or a company. All OSes have borrowed, and have often stolen, ideas from others. A classic example is MS Windows itself, which was borrowed from Apple, which in itself was borrowed from Xerox. In fact, there is probably not a single idea in Windows XP that did not exist in the unix world 15 years ago. So this romanticized 'vision' of creating a new OS from scratch by any company does not reflect reality. In fact, no single product of the day can claim to be completely independent of previously existing technology.

"But the whole story here is complicated. I myself prefer to use Linux than Windows. Windows is a difficult platform to develop on because Microsoft's engineering is essentially pragmatist."

I don't quite follow you. Windows, for all the negative things I can say about it, has some of the very best development environments available. For example, I know of no development environment on unix systems that is anywhere close to MS Visual Studio.

"UNIX has relatively good design principles and it's a lot easier to develop on--so I develop there and port to Windows as necessary. "

Unix has, indeed, clean design principles. However, I am not quite sure if developing on Unix and porting to windows is as easy as you make it to be, unless you are scripting or your progams do not involve graphical interfaces.

"The supporters of UNIX tend to be more idealistic and it's reflected in the software. Of course, they also tend to be anti-business--and that's reflected in the software. The supporters of Windows tend to be pragmatist complexity worshippers--and it's reflected in the software. But they're also pro-business and therefore pro-customer--and that's reflected in the software too."

These are sweeping generalizations without factual support. How could companies like Sun exist and flourish for almost 20 years, even though they are going downhill today, if the Unix supporters were 'anti-business?'

Sanjay

Clarification here ...

Duncan Bayne's picture

Because that isnt exactly how it works. Its not that its communally owned. Its not owned. You may dispose of linux and open source software developed by you, essentially, as you please.

Sorry, but that's absolutely incorrect - I think you are confusing Open Source Software (also known as Free Software) with public domain software.

OSS is still owned (typically by the author or company, but ownership is sometimes gifted to the Free Software Foundation) and released under the terms of a license which explicitly states how you may, or may not, distribute it. Three of the most popular open source licenses are:

  • GNU Public License (anti-commercial, I'm not a fan of this one)
  • GNU Lesser Public License (my favourite, which I use exclusively)
  • BSD License (very non-restrictive, a lot of code used in commercial products, including MS Windows, was originally released by other authors under this license)

I do agree though that an awful lot of time is wasted by Open Source developers merely cloning the creative effort of others ... hopefully though this trend is changing, with projects like Cairo and Amarok taking the lead in innovation.

Open Source doesn't work

sjw's picture

Almost everything of note they have ever done has been mere cloning and tweaking of something a commercial company did. The core technologies, UNIX & C, were created by Bell Labs. The initial act of creation is the real magic. Any intelligent programmer with enough time can hack out a clone, but it's far rarer to be able to synthesize a new vision of how a computer operating system should work.

Another major development that makes Linux useful is OpenOffice--again, a mere clone of Microsoft Office with tweaks here and there. On top of that, I gather that it's been heavily funded by the self-destructive and envious-of-Microsoft company, Sun Microsystems. So it's not even "Open Source"--if that means some loose band of coders working for free.

But the whole story here is complicated. I myself prefer to use Linux than Windows. Windows is a difficult platform to develop on because Microsoft's engineering is essentially pragmatist. UNIX has relatively good design principles and it's a lot easier to develop on--so I develop there and port to Windows as necessary. The supporters of UNIX tend to be more idealistic and it's reflected in the software. Of course, they also tend to be anti-business--and that's reflected in the software. The supporters of Windows tend to be pragmatist complexity worshippers--and it's reflected in the software. But they're also pro-business and therefore pro-customer--and that's reflected in the software too.

It's really just a big mess.

Open Source does not

John M Newnham's picture

Open Source does not necessarily equate to free in monetary terms. The "free" part is as I understand it, freedom to develop, modify, improve, package into various flavors etc. For example, Linux is based on open source, and while many distros are indeed free to download, others "flavors" are not.

I prefer Linux myself. Less tendency to freeze up, faster loading.

John

"I couldn't imagine

Marnee's picture

"I couldn't imagine something like this working in any other industry. This is the only case I have ever witnessed of a communal property production model having the potential to someday compete with privately owned capitalist businesses and privately owned intellectual property."

Because that isnt exactly how it works. Its not that its communally owned. Its not owned. You may dispose of linux and open source software developed by you, essentially, as you please.

There are a million software products developed on open source code that are commercial and make a load of money.

The point is that is a voluntary community, checking itself and sharing, voluntarily. The Tragedy of the Commons does not figure in. You can choose to share your further developments or not. There are even some open source technologies that have been developed using MS products. Dot Net Nuke is a good example.

Open Source may seem socialist and in many ways it is but you are free to use it at your discretion, share it, keep it to yourself, and if Im not mistaken sell what you have developed with few limitations. This is an important distinction.

Many open source developers will give away software but sell support. This can be a big money maker as well.

Linux and Open Source are competeing handily with private companies right now. Its not a matter of someday.

PS I prefer Microsoft products and platform and I develop using Microsoft products. So Im no Linux geek or anything. I am a geek though.

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