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The amorality of open source

January 13, 2006

"Open source is not a religion. It is not an ideology. It can be used for both good and bad. It does not inhabit the higher moral ground, nor is it a more ethical way to conduct business. It just is, and it will continue to grow and expand." So writes John Mark Walker in his level-headed article There Is No Open Source Community.

Dismissing the "conventional wisdom" that open-source software represents a movement or a cause or an ideal - the good side in the "struggle to protect users from the malevolent intent of large software companies" - Walker shows that the rise of open source is at heart an economic phenomenon. It's an inevitable consequence of the dramatic reduction in the costs of software production and distribution resulting from the enormous economies of scale made possible by the internet. And economics will, in turn, determine where open source takes over and where it doesn't.

For widely used software, he argues, the internet pushes prices inexorably toward zero, at which point "software developers have two choices when trying to win over users: (1) add features not available elsewhere, and (2) release the source code. There is no other currency of value that developers can extend to users." And because open source development is the most efficient way to produce valuable new features, "open source becomes a necessity in a competitive market." For more specialized software, where the internet-fed economies of scale are less pronounced, open source won't take hold: "there is simply no incentive to release open source software in those markets."

Walker does a good job of explaining why it's economic, rather than ideological, forces that are determining the course of the software industry. When any product becomes a commodity, and when the marginal costs of producing it hit zero, then that product is going to become free. For anything other than the most specialized software - software written for, essentially, a single purpose - marginal costs are hitting zero. Once the program exists, there's no cost for creating and distributing a new copy of it or extending it to a new user. The only question, then, is whether or not a given piece of software is a commodity or whether there continues to be true differentiation (in the eyes of users) among available choices. Users, it's clear, are deeming more and more types of software to be commodities, and open source continues to expand apace.

There's another important economic force at work here that Walker doesn't mention. It's the fact that many companies have a vested interest in turning software into a free resource and, cynically or not, can use the "open source community" to further that interest. For these companies - think IBM or Red Hat or Google or even Intel - software is a complement to their core product or service, and as Joel Spolsky points out in his excellent book Joel on Software, "demand for a product increases when the price of its complements decreases. In general, a company's strategic interest is going to be to get the price of their complements as low as possible ... Understanding this strategy actually goes a long, long way in explaining why many commercial companies are making big contributions to open source." By making software free, you can expand demand for your own products - and maybe hurt a competitor to boot.

So if you're contributing to an open source initiative to make the world a better place, that's great - but you probably won't want to pay too much attention to the underlying economics. You may discover that you're just a cog in a very big machine that's shifting dollars from one "malevolent" big company to another.

UPDATE: Matt Asay provides a good critique of Walker's essay.


You, as Walker, are still confusing and mixing "open source" with "free software".

We can argue years about this topic, but it's obvious that free software was not started by a company nor for economics reasons. It was started and grown during 15 years thanks to a strong ideology and ethical propositions _against_ the strongest contemporary companies (starting by Xerox, IBM, Sun, DEC...)

It's just too naive to assert that the "community" does not exist or there are _pure_ economic reasons once the community provided all the tools and systems so companies were able to start their business about free software.

Current examples: who is pushing and working to have a free software Java, free Flash players and authoring? Companies driven by economics interest or a community? (in this case FSF/GNU)

Bruce Perens --creator of the "open source" terms-- can explain better: http://lwn.net/Articles/167544/

> You may discover that you're just a cog in a very big machine that's shifting dollars from one "malevolent" big company to another.

As you may also discover that holy money is also used to pay and support assassins and terrorists, or that knives, planes and cars are used to kill people. Too exagerated?

Nevertheless, we, the free software community, know very well that IBM is afraid only of their business, not about freedom of software and knowledge. Why is this substandard article so interesting for you?

Posted by: ricardo galli at January 13, 2006 02:21 PM

@Why is this substandard article so interesting for you?

I think there may be a need among some to try to de-personalize life, and factor the individual out of history (as I elaborated on O'Reilly).

Posted by: Chris Smith at January 13, 2006 03:42 PM

You are completely wrong. There does indeed exist an Open Source community. You can pretend not seeing it, but it exists. Communities have always existed: neighbours, friends, scientists, writers, lawyers even politicians. Open Sources communities are a reality, so take a look at GNOME, KDE, XFCE, Linux, OpenOffice.org, FreeBSD and so. They do exist.

Computer enthusiasts and professionals are no different: I help my friends for free with their computers, I help people start up their own web site, I help people on taking decisions. Isn't that a community?

Posted by: noone at January 13, 2006 06:24 PM

Open source is not completely "free" as many people think. The initial license may be, but the services around the training, implementation etc are not. When SAP, oracle discount license by 80 or 90%, that is getting cloes to free also and the competition from open source is certainly contributing, but their "tail" in services, maintenance is pretty hefty.

What is neat about Open source is a robust community which can test, provide new ideas etc. They are much more robust and timely compared to corporate customer feedback.

I tell every software CTO to leverage the community and to embed as many open source components as possible. Along with cheaper broadband, intel machines, global labor, open source - the raw materials are becoming so much cheaper, the stubbornly high cost of business s/w can finally be broken...

open source is not a religious issue for me, it is a sourcing and efficiency issue...

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at January 13, 2006 08:40 PM

noone: I think you're reacting more to Walker's title than to my post. It's clear that there is a community of people involved in open source projects and the promotion of open source as an idea. The problem comes in believing that open source is that community or that idea, as opposed to a phenomenon shaped by economic forces. I think what Walker is pointing out is that the open-source community may be an unreliable guide when it comes to understanding the realities of open source.

Chris Smith: Even if open source's commercial trajectory is determined by economic forces, that certainly doesn't factor the individual out of the equation. It's still people who write the code and determine the quality of the products.

Posted by: Nick at January 13, 2006 11:37 PM

This type of economic determinism pisses me off. For one, John Walkers characterization of the economy is infantile, assuming like mainstream neoclassical economists that we live in a dream world of perfect competition. It assumes an economy of small producers who have no choice to take the prices that are offered for their products. The computer industry, like the reality in any industry, is dominated by a handful of global players who have an arsenal of weapons to make sure that consumers keep the money flowing and keep their small competitors weak.

Two, he's ignored a crucial portion of the history of birth of open source / free software that was born just when the companies were seeing the profit in siphoning the sharing of software among engineers.

Open source was in its infancy just when the software industry received the right to copyright software. Before Stallman created the GNU project software was being used and shared freely by software engineers. You can read in "Free as in Freedom" all about Stallman's personal struggle against the increasing realization by computer companies that the software could be copyrighted and treated separately from the entire technology of hardware and software found in computers.

It is quite misleading to characterize economic forces as driving software prices to zero when in fact the last thirty years has been one of increasing protection and paranoia on behalf of computer companies who have resorted first to copyright and now to patents and Digital Rights Management to protect their products from piracy or any kind of sharing. It's true that open source is becoming quite successful, but it's success is not guaranteed.

Three, he diminishes and ignores the huge amount of struggle it took and is taking to ensure a healthy open source market. There still could be a time when patents become so prevelent that open source is effectively thwarted.

John Walker's type of thinking helps put supporters of open source / free software off their guard. It helps them think that this is just all inevitable, when the truth is that companies would much prefer that all software was closed (and owned by themselves alone). Instead companies are willing to use open source as a weapon against even bigger players, in so far that it is useful for them.

Posted by: Herb at January 21, 2006 12:31 AM

I realize I'm coming late to the discussion.

I don't know that I'm an economic determinist, but economics definitely shapes way that open source plays out. I also think that the fact that many big players see open source in their interest is a good thing, esp. since they are investing a lot of their employees' time into open source. There's plenty to be done by both the individual participants and the corporate participants.

I've elaborated on my thoughts on Walker's article here.

Posted by: Bob Gifford at January 26, 2006 01:57 PM

I have read many arguments for and against full open source. I understand that the use of the term "full" can be interpreted many ways and I am not here to argue for or against open source nor get into a technical discussion as I am one of those “manager types”. My situation is that beyond my core mission I am held responsible for our development data in ways of security, stability, and restorability. The emphasis being more on the last two words versus the first. As such I know that not only is my job at stake, but it is possible in some states my own personal economics as well if the data is compromised and unrecoverable. What I am asking is there anyone else in the same situation for or against open source tools that store development source code or change tracking data. All feed back is welcome and please send your responses to my email address as provided as my time is very limited for going to web site blogs and such.


Posted by: Pat Hinde at January 28, 2006 07:06 PM

I like the description a lot. I think it illustrates the whole thing. "The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing."

Posted by: Helen, software developer at April 4, 2006 11:18 AM

Open Source might have started as a passionate, moral & ideological movement, but I agree with Walker that it is being sustained by reasons that are both ideological and economic. Very few ideological reasons (even if they are good) survive if the underlying economics are not sound enough...communism for example, as an ideology it sounds noble, but it is bad economics, people are capitalists by nature, so you have a good system overthrown by people in favour of a worse system (capitalism), because capitalism is economically more sound than communism...the same would have happened ( and could still happen) to F/LOSS if its economic fundamentals are not reviewed and appropriate fixes undertaken

Ec @ Free & Open Source Software Database

Posted by: ecacofonix [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2006 06:38 AM

Open Source is a great way for developing and distributing non-strategic system capabilities. In the end, eveything strategic will stay internal to companies but the rest will be given to the community.

Long-live open sourc. Finally small and medium businesses can now "afford" applications that only the large companies could afford int he past.

Posted by: Shongelolo at September 8, 2006 12:53 AM

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