Open source chic

Is open source software a powerhouse for innovation or a playground for geeks?

Jason Burton

Topics Politics

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Governments and corporations are everywhere singing the praises of open source software. The penguin logo of the open source operating system Linux has even made the cover of Business Week.

Does this enthusiasm for open source represent a long overdue defence of the ‘innovation commons’ – or is it just a way to save cash and have a pop at Microsoft?

According to leading research company IDC, Linux has grabbed around a 13 percent share of the $50.9billion server market so far, and is forecast to take around 25 percent in 2006. A recent survey commissioned by OpenForum and supported by the Department of Trade and Industry suggests that the traditional idea that Linux is only okay for simple, non-mission-critical applications is being called into question by IT decision-makers – a quarter of respondents said that they were considering open source software for running mission-critical applications, and 22 percent said that they are considering using Linux on their desktops.

For an operating system started by Finnish student Linus Torvalds in his bedroom as a hobby, this is an impressive achievement (1).

Linux is not alone in its success. For several years, the open source web-server Apache has been the most commonly used server of its kind, and the open source database server MySQL is experiencing similar success, with 30,000 downloads per day and Sun’s CEO Scott McNealy promoting its inclusion with the Sun operating system Solaris (2).

But there is no doubt that Linux is the flagship of the so-called open source movement. Recently, a senior executive at Unilever committed to moving the company’s global IT infrastructure to Linux by 2006 – on the basis of this move, Unilever expects to cut around £66million from its IT budget (6). This move suggests that Linux – long held in esteem by the technically minded – is now also gaining acceptance in the commercial world.

And there is growing support for Linux in the government sector. In Peru, congressman Edgar David Villanueva Núñez has filed Bill 1609, which requires government agencies to use open source software, unless no mature or viable alternative is available (3). Other governments around the world are also making positive noises about Linux – Germany signed a deal with IBM in summer 2002 making it easier for government offices to adopt the operating system.

‘With the contract with IBM we meet three key targets’, said Otto Schily, the German minister of the interior. ‘We raise the level of IT security by avoiding monocultures; we lower the dependency on single software vendors; and we reach costs savings in software and operation costs.’ (4)

Linux is a successful initiative and a tribute to the abilities and dedication of Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman (the originator both of the General Public License (GPL) that Linux is ‘marketed’ under, and of some important software components that Torvalds incorporated into Linux (5)), and the thousands of others who played a part in the development of the software. But does the success of Linux carry any wider message? Does the rise in open source software support the claim that open source software promotes innovation more effectively than commercial – so-called proprietary – software development?

The case for the innovative power of open source software is put by Lawrence Lessig, professor at the Stanford Law School and adviser to Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson during the Department of Justice’s late 1990s legal case against Microsoft over the corporation’s alleged anti-competitive practices. In his book The Future of Ideas Lessig argues for the protection of the ‘commons’ of the internet, which, for Lessig, is made up of three components: the commons of code (the software that built the internet and the applications that run on it); the commons of knowledge; and the commons of innovation (which results from the other two) (6).

For Lessig, protecting the openness of code means keeping the opportunity open to anyone with the necessary skills to innovate and build upon this platform.

Lessig draws out two main reasons why the protection of ‘the commons’ through the open source approach to software development promotes innovation. First, by offering the world a wide range of code and coding resources, open code lowers the barrier to entry for innovators – would-be innovators do not need vast amounts of capital in order to contribute to ‘the commons’. Second, by building a non-proprietary platform, both through licences and through distributed source code, the system assures developers that the platform will remain neutral.

Presumably drawing on his experiences in the Department of Justice case against Microsoft, Lessig concludes that: ‘Keeping this resource in a commons increases the value of the resource – both because others can draw upon this resource and because it mitigates the number of strategic games played by others.’ (7)

This view appears to raise a powerful challenge to the ideas of intellectual property, which dominate the commercial software industry, and are behind the current boom in patents and legal battles over intellectual property in industries from entertainment to biotechnology.

Eric S Raymond – open source advocate and author of the The Cathedral and the Bazaar – argues that ‘Linux is subversive’ (8). But if this is the case, is it not surprising that the commercial world is so open to adopting Linux products? When IBM puts its weight behind Linux by contributing developers to the Linux effort, Larry Ellison of Oracle publicly champions Linux and Sun’s Scott McNealy puts in a good word for MySQL, are they not shooting themselves in the foot? (9) Do they not see the irony that their respective companies are all dependent upon revenues driven by selling proprietary software in a distinctly non-open source way?

But the reasons why Linux in particular, and open source software in general, are now being championed from all corners have very little to with a principled defence of the internet commons, or any genuine desire to champion innovation per se.

Certainly, there are some basic reasons for companies to adopt Linux. Some are aiming to reduce IT spending in a harsh economic climate – and Linux is a robust software produced by an army of skilled volunteers that is offered virtually for free. Time will tell whether IT managers get the financial benefits that they are looking for, but it appears that Linux can be the smart option in some circumstances.

Also important is the use of Linux and open source as a political football between the large commercial interests. It seems that IBM’s endorsement of Linux across a range of platforms – from PDAs to supercomputers – is partly aimed at wrongfooting competitors. Similarly, the support of hardware manufacturers for Linux can be read as an attempt to change the balance of power between themselves and companies such as Microsoft – which is understandable considering the way that Microsoft’s DOS and Windows took all the value out of the PC market, leaving hardware makers as producers of cheap PC clones.

But open source is not a genuine challenge to proprietary software development. Sure, devotees can point to examples of genuine innovation – mostly developed for other techies like themselves rather than for general consumers. But it will take a lot more than a few thousand developers collaborating to develop an operating system or a web server to challenge the multi-billion dollar software industry driven, like it or not, by intellectual property and the need to realise a profit on investment.

Would Microsoft invest over $5billion dollars in research and development in 2003 if its vehicle for recouping that investment were GPL? Of course not. Neither would Sun or IBM for that matter, but they will continue to pay lip-service to the joys of open source while it helps them to have a dig at their competitors.

I also doubt whether many of those involved in the software industry would work unpaid like Linus Torvalds. Linus and his friends may have had great fun creating Linux – the technical challenges and the collective experience of working together outside the strictures of the market were probably a reward in themselves.

However, for the majority of us involved in software development – not just developers, but marketers, designers, business people, sales people and box-packers – enjoyment of the production process comes secondary to the need to get paid. Getting paid for your labour requires something a bit more concrete than a GPL and a feeling of good karma – it generally requires capital investment and the prospect of that investment returning a profit.

It is unlikely that a company looking to invest in the production of software would choose to use the GPL, when that means that anyone can copy what they’ve done. And most consumers won’t want to go through the complexities of trying to install and use Debian, Red Hat or some other flavour of Linux, only to find that what the average user can do with it is pretty limited.

The open source community may scorn the technical engineering of Microsoft products, and convince themselves that the only reason Microsoft software is installed on the vast majority of desktops worldwide is because Microsoft is a corrupt marketing machine. But such pique reveals a need to get real. The passion of the open source community may be enough to produce a good operating system, but it takes more than that to bring a product to market that serves the needs of consumers and business.

As Fortune’s Dave Kirkpatrick asks: ‘Which was more innovative, the invention of the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC or finding a way to create an industry that brought this wonderful capability to hundreds of millions of people? The former wouldn’t have mattered much without the latter.’ (10)

Open source is not a dead issue. The debate around open source software is an important part of the discussion about the role that private interests play in innovation and intellectual labour. However, in the long run, while open source may be significant in certain markets – such as server operating systems – it is unlikely to raise a general challenge to the idea of proprietary software or intellectual property per se.

I suspect that private interests will not be swept away in favour of ‘the commons’ any time soon – and products like Linux will continue to serve those private interests when it suits them.

Jason Burton is an ebusiness consultant and project manager based in London, and a passionate advocate for technology and its potential to improve the way we work and live.

He is speaking at the spiked-seminar ‘Powerhouse or playground?: Free software, open source and innovation’, at IBM’s London offices, on Wednesday 2 April 2003. For further details, email

(1) See Linux throws down the gauntlet to Microsoft and opens up server market, Liz Vaughan-Adams, Independent, 21 March 2003; Market Perception Analysis of Open Source Software Follow Up Study One Year On (.pdf 71.8 KB), Mauro Mortali, Trend Consulting, March 2003; Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Texere Publishing, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) See Market share for top servers across all domains August 1995 – March 2003, Netcraft, 25 March 2003; Can an open source database threaten Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM?, David Kirkpatrick, Fortune, 12 March 2003

(3) See Go with the Penguin, says Unilever chief, Peter Williams,, 27 February 2003

(3) MS in Peruvian open-source nightmare, Thomas C Greene, Register, 5 May 2002

(4) Linux takes on Microsoft turf in Germany, Stephen Shankland, ZDNet, 4 June 2002

(5) See Free as in freedom: Richard Stallman’s crusade for free software, Sam Williams, O’Reilly, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(6) See Lawrence Lessig’s supreme showdown, Steven Levy, Wired, October 2002; The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, Lawrence Lessig, Vintage, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(7) The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, Lawrence Lessig, p72. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(8) The Cathedral and The Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, Eric S Raymond, O’Reilly, 2001, p27. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(9) See the Linux at IBM section of the IBM website; Larry Ellison: Oracle betting on Linux, Dan Orzech, CIO Information Network, 20 December 2002; Can an open source database threaten Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM?, David Kirkpatrick, Fortune, 12 March 2003

(10) Microsoft holds monopoly, but also vision, David Kirkpatrick, Fortune, 10 December 2002

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Topics Politics


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