The Economist loses its marbles

Posted by Herschel_Cohen on Mar 17, 2006 11:03 PM EDT; By Terry Vessels, aka 'grouch'
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The article in The Economist, Open, but not as usual, contains misrepresentations that appear to be designed to disparage open source and promote closed source.

[ED: Front page news, straight from my favorite Grouch - HC]

The Economist loses its marbles

The article in The Economist, Open, but not as usual, contains misrepresentations that appear to be designed to disparage open source and promote closed source.

"However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property."

Open source ensures quality in a brutal, Darwinian fashion. It does not lack a way of ensuring quality; its very nature, that of being open, ensures quality. Literally anyone may point out a failing in an open source project. If this aspect is not present, the project is not open. See, e.g., The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond.

Open source projects do not exhibit the lawsuit-laden characteristic of closed source. Open source projects are open for copyright, trademark and patent owners to examine and protest misuse of their property. If there are trade secrets appearing in open source projects, those are, by definition, no longer secret. It would be the responsibility of the owner of such former trade secrets to discover who publicized them. Since the activity of contributors to an open source project are part of the public record of that project, open source projects provide trade secret owners with a much easier task than do closed projects. See, e.g., IP Law & Business. For the real threat of litigation over software, see Firms face criminal charges over unlicensed software.

"Projects that fail to cope with open source's vulnerabilities usually fall by the wayside. Indeed, almost all of them meet this end. Of the roughly 130,000 open-source projects on, an online hub for open-source software projects, only a few hundred are active, and fewer still will ever lead to a useful product. The most important thing holding back the open-source model, apparently, is itself."

The author apparently fails to notice the conflict within this paragraph and the conflict between this assertion and the previous one that "it lacks ways of ensuring quality". This project failure rate is not "holding back the open-source model", it is an inherent advantage of the model. Projects which do not begin with a working base, or which do not appear destined to accomplish something useful, or which fail for other reasons to attract developers, will be abandoned. The ease of starting a project ensures that many ideas are represented. Not all ideas are good ones. Natural selection will cause most to fail early. It is not a perfect selection process, but it does result in higher quality software. The world is free to start projects, participate in projects, or ignore projects.

"The question of accountability is a vital one, not just for quality but also for intellectual-property concerns. Patents are deadly to open source since they block new techniques from spreading freely. But more troubling is copyright: if the code comes from many authors, who really owns it? This issue took centre stage in 2003, when a company called SCO sued users of Linux, including IBM and DaimlerChrysler, saying that portions of the code infringed its copyrights. The lines of programming code upon which SCO based its claims had changed owners through acquisitions over time; at some point they were added into Linux."

The question of accountability is vital regardless of whether an open source model or a closed model is used. The history of litigation among closed source proponents indicates it is a far greater problem in closed source than open source. Patents are "deadly" to all software developers, regardless of open or closed. Patent litigation among closed source proponents appears to be a daily business activity. Copyright ownership is easier to establish in an open project than a closed project. See also Danish newspaper reports on Microsoft threat.

The SCO v. IBM and SCO v. Daimler Chrysler litigations, the latter having already been dismissed without prejudice, are poor examples if the author is trying to cast doubt on the accountability of open source projects. The SCO Group refused to publicly reveal code it claimed. This is not the action of someone being harmed who wants the harm to cease. This is the action that one would take if the goal was to prolong the impression that harm was being done. The SCO Group morphed its case multiple times to avoid presenting any evidence. It now appears to have only peripheral association with GNU/Linux in some nebulous contract claims against IBM. IBM, 3 years into the litigation, is still trying to get The SCO Group to identify, with specificity, exactly what the claims are. See, in general, Groklaw.

"To sceptics, the suit seems designed to thwart the growth of Linux by spreading unease over open source in corporate boardrooms--a perception fuelled by Microsoft's involvement with SCO. The software giant went out of its way to connect SCO with a private-equity fund that helped finance the lawsuits, and it paid the firm many millions to license the code. Fittingly, Microsoft indemnifies its customers against just this sort of intellectual-property suit--something that open-source products are only starting to do."

What indemnification? See the MS EULA. See the Timeline v. Microsoft suit, involving Timeline patents that MS assured users of MSSQL 7 and Office 2000 they were not infringing. The judgment said otherwise. Microsoft left developers twisting in the wind, facing treble damages for infringement. Indemnification is a straw-man created by MS. Offerings by Red Hat and Novell have existed at least 2 years. See, e.g., Microsoft's new weapon against Linux questioned.

"For the moment, users of Linux say that SCO-like worries have not affected their adoption of open-source software. But they probably would be leery if, over time, the code could not be vouched for. In response, big open-source projects such as Linux, Apache and Mozilla have implemented rigid procedures so that they can attest to the origins of the code. In other words, the openness of open source does not necessarily mean it is anonymous. Strikingly, even more monitoring of operations is required in open source than in other sorts of businesses."

Why are businesses not worried about closed-source adoption since, over time, historically, they cannot vouch for the code? Why do they use such code, given the history of devastating litigation among closed-source vendors?

"Even if the cracks in the management of open source can be plugged by some fairly straightforward organisational controls, might it nevertheless remain only a niche activity--occupying, essentially, the space between a corporation and a commune? There are two doubts about its staying power. The first is how innovative it can remain in the long run. Indeed, open source might already have reached a self-limiting state, says Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of "The Success of Open Source" (Harvard University Press, 2004). "Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply--but can it do anything new? Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge," he says."

Where to begin? What "cracks in the management"? The article fails to identify any whatsoever, instead holding up incorrect assumptions based, apparently, on a shallow investigation of open source, as examples of problems with open source when, in fact, those characteristics are what give open source its strength and viability.

Open source will not "remain only a niche activity"; it never was one. Collaborative, open development has spurred software advance since the first computers. It has simply gone global by means of the open source creation, the Internet. Closed source is, was, and always will be, the niche player. The aberration of the Microsoft model inflicted itself on unwary and unsuspecting "consumers", to the detriment of a then well-established and thriving open development and sharing community. Microsoft's first product was an adaptation of the public domain BASIC. Everything since is likewise based on pre-existing inventions. Their success depended not on "innovation", but on injecting themselves into marketing choke-points to control distribution along with injecting misinformation to control demand. See, e.g., History and Timeline,

Twenty Years of Berekeley Unix
, Grace Murray Hopper, The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement, Leading Edge Forum Report 2004, Open Source: Open for Business.

As for Mr. Weber's comment that "Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply--but can it do anything new?", would he please point to anything before Linux, at any price, that would run on a watch, a telephone, a personal computer, a mainframe, a cluster, and a grid of supercomputers? Oh, each of those things had already been done before, but never all by one "product".

Please show me the off-the-shelf closed operating system, at any price, that could match the performance and scalability of a Cray supercomputer in 1999 -- "As for the copy of Red Hat's Linux, IBM purchased it at a local Barnes & Noble the day before the demonstration."

Open-source supercomputer beats Cray

Of course matching the Cray's benchmark record indicates that once again, Linux is doing what has already been done. Why didn't IBM buy some other boxed system at Barnes & Noble? Surely a superior innovator like Microsoft must have had lots of boxed systems for sale that could accomplish that feat. No? Interesting. Something new. Still not matched by "consumer" boxed OSes from Microsoft.

"The second doubt is whether the motivation of contributors can be sustained. Companies are good at getting people to rise at dawn for a day's dreary labour. But the benefit of open-source approaches is that they can tap into a far larger pool of resources essentially at no cost. Once the early successes are established, it is not clear that the projects can maintain their momentum, says Christian Alhert, the director of, which examines the feasibility of applying open-source practices to commercial ventures."

That second doubt is easily dispelled. The primary motivation is to solve a problem. So long as the problem exists, somebody wants it solved. Once the problem is solved, it may be adaptable to solve other problems. If the solution cannot be adapted, and it adequately solves the original, inspiring problem, then the project requires only sufficient motivation for maintenance of the code. Note that maintenance involves realigning a solution to continue to fit a problem. If the solution is no longer needed, no motivation is needed. When we run out of problems that can be solved by code, we run out of motivations for open source. I don't expect that to happen any time soon.

"But there are arguments in favour of open source, too. Ronald Coase, a Nobel prize-winning economist, noted that firms will handle internally what it would otherwise cost more to do externally through the market. The open-source approach seems to turn this insight on its head and it does so thanks to the near-zero cost of shipping around data. A world in which communication is costly favours collaborators working alongside each other; in a world in which it is essentially free, they can be in separate organisations in the four corners of the earth."

It is amazing to see such a long article under the heading "Open-source business" which has 1 paragraph discovering arguments in favour of open source. This is especially surprising considering the multitude of very large corporations which report they save many millions of dollars by using open source software. Surely they must see sufficient arguments in its favor to warrant more than 1 in 31 paragraphs spouting arguments in favor of open source. See Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS, FLOSS, or FOSS)? Look at the Numbers! by David A. Wheeler, Migrations.

The near-zero cost of shipping data around the world is not an inherent advantage of open source. It does allow wide-spread collaboration on open source, and wide-spread testing of open source. The biggest advantage of open source is open source. It is open for inspection by anyone who cares to do so. It is open for developers to participate in its creation, testing and maintenance. It therefore leverages the work of individuals, both in creation of the code and in testing the code.

"Strikingly, mainstream technology companies--once the most proprietary outfits of them all--have started to cotton on to this. Sun Microsystems is making its software and even chip designs open, in a bid to save the company's business from competition from open-source alternatives. Even Microsoft has increasingly made some products open to outside review, and released certain code, such as for installing software, free of charge under licensing terms whereby it can be used provided enhancements are shared. "We have quite a few programs in Microsoft where we take software and distribute it to the community in an open-source way," gushes Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy at the company. Open source could enjoy no more flattering tribute than that."

Microsoft? Open? I've seen open sewers gush, as well, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing. Neither is it flattering that Microsoft feigns some openness in response to the very real threat open source poses to its illegally maintained monopoly. Microsoft's "shared source" is in no way equivalent to open source development. Just distributing software in "an open-source way" is nothing to gush about. Collaborative development, public participation, open standards and selection of best-of-breed by merit are worth gushing about. These are marks of open source at its best. Imitative parasites need not apply. See MS Litigation.

Let's see how The Economist scored compared to the things Microsoft has used in public against open source in general and GNU/Linux in particular:

  • Innovation -- check

  • Vulnerabilities -- check (We all know who suffers from these).

  • "Intellectual Property" (What a pile of indefinable buzz-bull! Copyrights? Open source shows where the code came from. MS gets sued. Patents? The broken patent system threatens everybody, equally, but MS gets sued. Trade secrets? Umm, open secrets? How does that work? Trademarks? Open source threatens no trademarks. Microsoft tries to trademark ordinary language.)

  • Failed projects -- check (Think "road map").

  • Patents -- check (see SCO and the recent NZ "Guidelines" which were written by a law firm associated with MS and which the NZ government is now reviewing and changing in consultation with NZOSS).

  • Indemnification -- check (Red Hat set up a fund 3 years ago. MS talks it, but read the fine print).

  • Niche -- check (MS has been playing that notion to create FUD for years. Go back to 2001:

    "Let's go to myth number two: Linux is only a niche play.

    "Have you heard this one before? Think about this? Web servers, Internet service provider, telcos, Internet applications. If you measure the revenue opportunity of our industry at over a trillion dollars, that's about 40 percent of our industry. That's a niche? That's a niche! That's big enough for IBM to play in! Believe me, we need big sandboxes when you get to our size."

    -- Sam Palmisano

    Haven't they worn this FUD out yet?)

  • Long-term viability -- check (Pure, slimey FUD. Open source has been around longer than Microsoft. See the links above. Maybe Ballmer himself wrote this one.)

The article reeks of trying to make businesses afraid to use open source, uncertain of associated legal risks, and doubtful of its viability. The article is very short on facts and long on FUD.

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial; Groups: Community, GNU, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, OSDL, Red Hat, SCO

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It's the other way around: claus 8 1,925 Mar 19, 2006 2:59 AM

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