Start the revolution without me

Sun 10 October 1999

Confused by the ruckus over open-source software? Bobby McFerrin had it right: Don’t worry, keep hacking.

Everybody’s talking about the “open software revolution.” From geek forums like SlashDot to academic journals like Communications of the ACM, from the New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, everyone is saying that there’s something important going on.

The leaders of the open-source movement argue that their way of doing things will change the world of software development forever. Detractors question their leadership and attack their ideas on business, logical, economic, political, sociological, and other grounds. The hubbub is rising so fast I’ve seen good friends worry that open-source software may destroy their way of life by making it impossible to sell software or write it for hire.

I’m not at home with the rhetoric of any of the factions. I’m not a radical, I’m a programmer. You say you want a revolution? You can count me out.

War of the words

Like many programmers, I have used and written open-source software for a long time. I’m glad that we now have a phrase — open source -- to describe what we’ve been doing. But I object to narrow definitions that exclude workable, time-honored, and popular practices. Now that we have a buzzword, people are trying to cram political and economic agendas into the term.

There are those, for instance, who argue that open-source development is the solution to all software development problems. But they do so based on information drawn from just a few successful projects. Most of the open-source projects I have tracked over the past 18 months have been cancelled, only to become data points that feed the well-known statistics about the high failure rate of software projects. Methodologies are a dozen for a penny; these projects failed because they never had a feasible business plan.

In the opposite corner are those who see the open-source movement as a threat to the software industry. Never mind that open-source initiatives are law-abiding and — because of their open nature — much less likely to fall into the anticompetitive practices that characterize a part of our industry. Never mind that thousands of developers are gainfully employed on open-source projects. Never mind that hundreds of thousands of users entrust their businesses to their work. They are convinced that the sky is falling.

Then there’s the debate over “free” software.

On one side are the developers and activists who believe software should not be treated as intellectual property. Or that it should be treated like intellectual property, but developers should waive their property rights.

On the other side are people who oppose free software. Some because they think it’s impractical, and some because the initiative seems politically suspect — too leftish. The extreme left has become extremely unpopular in most circles, and all of this talk of free software smacks of outmoded socialist ideas. As long as those impressions persist, I don’t see how the free software cause can make it to a critical mass of supporters.

Intellectual property has been a hairy issue since the invention of speech at least, and intense debates about it precede the Internet era by centuries. The debates are so intense, you have to wonder how any country’s founding fathers were able to quiet the ruckus long enough to slip intellectual-property language into their constitutions.

The shouting’s so loud, it’s tempting to ignore the arguments. But you can’t simply ignore the “free” versus “proprietary” software debate — no more than you would ignore debates between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. or Greens and Social Democrats in Germany. This debate is truly about ideas. It’s worthy of your attention.

It is difficult to write about these issues without making a contribution to the arguments. But I’m determined: I’m not about to take a side on these issues. I do think that open-source development will impact software development in general, and in an important way. But I think that the effect won’t be immediate, and it won’t be obvious. To know what this “revolution” will actually lead to…well, you have to wait. My take is that the factions will ultimately reconcile.

Strip away the rhetoric and it’s clear: There is no revolution. The ideas being argued and shouted are interesting, and important, yes, but their effect will be evolutionary. Like always.

So don’t worry. It will be all right.

Originally written for In Publishing LLC
Copyright © 1999 Inprise Corp.