Duncan Riley, of TechCrunch fame, has started putting up some short videos at dunchanriley.tv. One of those videos in particular got my attention. It's embedded below...
The video and specifically the assertion that "Open Source is communism" got me to thinking. Thinking about the nature of Open Source, where it belongs, and why some projects work while others fail.
(For those who don't watch the video, Mr. Riley doesn't say Open Source is communism he just responds to someone else saying it)
Looking at What Works
I liked the choice of examples he used so I'm going to use them as well. Here were his examples:
Those That Work: Firefox, MySQL, Linux
Those That Don't Work: Open Office
So the question is, why is software like Firefox exploding while OpenOffice flounders?
Its the Platform Stupid
When James Carville famously devised the statement "Its the Economy Stupid!" he added the "Stupid" because he was surprised no one in the Presidential Race was addressing what everyone outside the race already knew. That people were worried about the economy.
Similarly, those in the open source world like to paint flowery pictures of selfless people working with no purpose other than charity. But despite those flowery pictures most outside realize that open source projects succeed when people are motivated by self interest. Firefox, Apache, Linux and their other LAMP brethren created platforms on which millions of applications run. In turn, those application developers are dependent on the open source products being around.
This motivates those developers to help out which keeps the products alive.
OpenOffice on the other hand is a largely a stand alone product. You can build small Add-Ons but that functionality isn't enough to build an ecosystem of companies around it. Which is why it flounders despite its potential and big company backing.
It isn't Communism it's Good Business
Getting back to the "Open Source is Communism" claim I think the above proves this isn't the case. In fact, Capitalism is better served when companies embrace Open Source.
To give one example, its an enormous waste of money for Microsoft and Apple to both develop lower level functionality to interface with identical hardware. No one buys an OS based on how elegantly it communicates with its serial bus. If these companies agreed to share technology that was identical in both systems they could spend their money competing on the things that consumers actually care about.
(I realize this will almost certainly never happen but its a good example none the less)
The Software Industry is polluted with examples of companies doing more work than they need to by spending money on building things that already exist. The tragedy, as in the above example, is that consumers don't care. In fact, most consumers don't want companies to innovate in these areas. Can you imagine a company that required its own web browser?
This isn't new
I think the most important thing here is to put Open Source into its proper context. Part of the problem is that people who love technology tend to see themselves as revolutionaries. So you get Open Source advocates running around thinking they're changing the world when actually they're just catching up to it.
Yes I said catching up to it.
You know what else is Open Source? A Tire. All cars use the same basic "Tire Technology" Some have expanded on it (TripleTred, ComforTred, etc...) but in the end its the same tire underneath it all.
You see, Open Source is actually a pretty old concept.
Technology and specifically the software industry trails behind other industries when it comes to making parts that are open and interchangeable. Open Source isn't revolution its the same evolution that millions of other product types have gone through.
Not only is Open Source not Communism it is really at the heart of Capitalism. Capitalism is finding ways to make money as efficiently as possible. Using common, open components is an easy way to do that. Ask Steve Jobs how much money he saved by not having to start from scratch on OS X.
(OS X is derived from an Open Source Unix variation for those who didn't know)
This type of development is inevitable in a capitalist system. Every car company in existence uses the same type of tire because they have to. If one company tried to resist they'd almost certainly go out of business because they'd have to spend exponentially more on R&D. As time goes on I think Open Source will play a bigger and bigger role in the software industry for just that reason.
Don't get me wrong, there will always be parts of software that rely on closed source just as there is still proprietary technology in cars. But I think you'll eventually see those closed source implementations resting on an Open Source Foundation and the consumer will be better off for it.
One Final Note
The above post is a generalization and like all generalizations it has exceptions.
There will always be people coming up with new business models and that's part of what makes a capitalist system great. So Matt Mullenweg may very well make money by running a hosted version of his Open Source software and that's great. If Wordpress can be successful through only one company (as opposed to building a platform) more power to them. But exceptions to a rule don't invalidate the rule itself.