Did Open Source ever have a halo?

A week or so back, I came across an article asking if Open Source had lost it’s halo. The author, seems confused on several points about open source, seeming to take elements of the Free Software movement and simply free like beer software without any seeming understanding of what Open Source means.

The article starts with this – it sets the stage with exactly how it is misunderstanding it’s subject:

Is open-source still a grassroots social movement made up of idealistic underdogs trying to revolutionize an amoral industry? Or has it become a cloak used by IT vendors large and small to disguise ruthless and self-serving behavior?

Open source never was a movement of idealistic underdogs, it purposefully set itself apart from the philosophical Free Software movement from which it sprang. It actively seeks out IT vendors large and small to work with it not because of a moral imperative but because doing so would be beneficial (and thus self-serving) to the vendor in question.

Wikipedia tells us:

They used the opportunity before the release of Navigator’s source code to free themselves of the ideological and confrontational connotations of the term free software. Netscape licensed and released their code as open source under the name of Mozilla.

And also:

They sought to bring a higher profile to the practical benefits of freely available source code, and they wanted to bring major software businesses and other high-tech industries into open source.

So.. now that we understand the writer’s key misunderstanding, he goes on to say:

Some observers argue it’s the latter. Despite occasional protests from oldtimers — the heated backlash against the Microsoft-Novell détente, for example — open-source has become so co-opted by mainstream IT, so transformed by “accidental open-sourcers” simply looking for a better business model, that it’s lost its cherished moral edge.

As we saw above, far from cherishing it’s moral edge, the entire point of the creation of open source was to leave morality behind. They wanted to pitch the idea in cold hard economics that it was a viable and better business model than the closed source model.

Also, people are not upset simply because Microsoft and Novell are getting together, if Microsoft truly embraced open source doctrines, this would be welcome news. The problem with this deal is that Microsoft is taking an open source project and dividing it’s users. Patent cooperation does not help open source, patents are problematic for the movement. That Novell customers will now have the right not to be sued by Microsoft is a classic embrace and extend movement as the hope will be a lock-in for users into a Microsoft-Novell hybrid. Once you start using non-open source elements in the equation, you will be locked in as surely as if the whole stack was closed source.

Ok, moving on he has several paragraphs in the piece that sound like this:

Yet few have taken notice of what might be seen as ruthless or even treacherous action because of the positive reputation HP enjoys as a champion — second only to IBM — of open-source.

This is one half of a theme he’s trying to build – that there are two sides to the world “good guys” and “bad guys”. The good guys can do whatever they want because they are perceived as good and although what they do may impact their competition negatively they don’t get any negative press. Bad guys on the other hand can take the same types of actions and receive nothing but outcry.

The problem with that is that it isn’t the way it works. The “good” guys are the ones who actually are embracing open source and working with that community. They are not criticized for giving more freedoms to their customers and non-customers alike – if the consumer benefits in the short and long term, it isn’t a problem. Calling the open-sourcing of software treacherous is a little wildly off base, where is the treachery? Who are these businesses betraying? Ruthless, perhaps, but then you concede that open-sourcing works and that is the point.

By contrast, ‘bad’ companies like Microsoft can’t catch a break, argues Haff. For instance, if in the late 1990s Microsoft, then in the midst of the Department of Justice’s anti-trust case, had decided to release its Visual Studio 97 development tools for free, “What do you think the general reaction would have been? Applause for Microsoft’s generosity? Or widespread condemnation for using its market power to make such a transparently anti-competitive attack on other makers of development tools?”

Here we go trying to set up the other half of the world view – the “bad guys” despite doing their best to help the open sourcers just can’t catch a break.

First off, the best example he can come up with to support this idea is a hypothetical one from a situation a decade ago? A hypothetical one that could never have come about – Microsoft is clearly opposed to open source as they demonstrate again and again. Their open document format is open in name only and not usable as an open standard. As shown above, the Novell deal is an embrace and extend play. But to answer the rhetoric, if Microsoft had really embraced open source and released this code, I don’t think there would have been widespread condemnation at all, quite the opposite, in fact.

The reason the author can’t find examples for the “bad” side of this, is that “bad” companies don’t actually go open source. They may talk about it, they may pretend to like it, but they never actually free anything.

The prevailing business model is the almost-oxymoronic ‘commercial open-source.’ The biggest open-source announcements last year were all by companies traditionally hostile to open-source.

Again, this is not oxymoronic. This is the point of open source. That companies hostile to it are switching over, even if in name only, is a testament to the success of the business model.

Or Oracle, which began supporting Red Hat Linux — though its offer received heavy criticism because, as Haff puts it, “Red Hat is reasonably well-liked, and Oracle’s move was so bloody flagrant.”

Oracle received criticism not because it is perceived as a “bad” company and can’t catch a break for doing something “good” like going open source. It wasn’t embracing open source, it made a parasitic move to repackage a true open source companies’ work and sell it at a discount. This move is antagonistic to the open source world, they contribute nothing and harm those who do. They are of course free to do it, that’s the point, but ultimately I believe they are doomed to fail. I talk about it a little more in depth here.

This article starts with a broken premise and as far as I can tell does the opposite of what it was trying to do.

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