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Context: post to linux-elitists. What makes free software tick.

ToDo: TWikify more fully.

On the question of whether or not free software is good because of Ethics v. Pragmatic debate, I tend to come down slightly on the pragmatists side debate: I use GNU/Linux because it does what I want it to do. And I expect it to continue doing so. But I see the two issues as inextricably bound.

I put this question to RMS at a dinner some years ago: do you believe in free software because it is good, or because it is free? Richard's answer: because it is free.

Richard is the idealist, the evangelist, the missionary. And to him freedom is an absolute goal.

I fall to a more pragmatic bent: the tools I use should work. They should be long-term credible. There should be a growth path. There should be a consistency over time. They should be extensible. They should be flexible.

A Whirlwind History of the IT Industry

When I began taking free software seriously, ~1997, I spent a couple of years looking hard at the economic, legal, and technical underpinnings of the movement. One of the more interesting items I turned up was a history of the computing industry in the US, from the 1940s onward.

"Cognition and Capabilities: Opportunities Seized and Missed in the History of the Computer Industry" Richard N. Langlois

This begins with the emergence of IBM from the Eniac and UNIVAC computers in the 1940s and 50s, displacing Remington Rand (aka Sperry Rand), and beating out GE and RCA.. A number of transition points are noted:

Langlois's analysis leaves off at this point, but I'd throw in a few additional examples or trends:

Themes Emergent in IT History

Turning this into an analytic tool rather than merely a laundry list, I see the following principles and themes emerging:

Worse is better.

Many of the successful strategies pitted a slightly inferior, but good enough competitor against a more elegant solution. In all cases, "worse" also tended to: less expensive (on a purchase unit if not on a capabilities basis), more flexible, more modular, and less centrally controlled.

For the classic treatment of this, see Richard P. Gabriel's Worse is Better and [The Rise of ``Worse is Better''.

Cheaper is better.

Reduced cost, or reduced entry cost dominates a more expensive product.

Modular is better.

Selling pieces to be assembled (or assembling pieces and selling many different products) beats a highly tuned, but single-purpose, system.

Decentralized is better.

Reducing centralized control, often written as "the right to fork" in free software discussions, means that more ideas can be tried, and that the proving ground for new development is larger. This is critical as the inventor of a new technology never foresees its possible applications. It also means no patent royalties or other licensing restrictions.

This dynamic is key to understanding both the rise and the likely fall of the Microsoft PC market. PCs emerged and succeeded as a decentralization tool -- they enabled users and broke the strangle-hold of the corporate IT fiefdom. Today, Microsoft represents to a greater extent the role of controlling authority, dictating terms under which other actors in the IT market can participate. GNU/Linux and free software offer decentralization and autonomy to hardware, software, and service vendors, as well as end users.

Standard is better.

Providing a uniform base on which to roll out services tends to increase utility -- IBM's s360, DEC's minis, Unix, the PC, and GNU/Linux, as well as industry and technology standards such as ASCII, RFCs, etc.

The Meaning to Life, The Universe, And Free Software....

So you ask, what the hell does freedom and ethics have to do with this?

Simply: the free software development model feeds each of these success factors.

I'd like to revisit briefly the foundations of free software -- the principles on which it is grounded and which lead to its existence.

  1. A development model: the open source "Bazaar" described by Eric Raymond, which takes advantage of many eyes, tight development cycles, and continuous evolution
  2. A legal framework of free software licensing, including both copyleft (GNU GPL and similar) and less restrictive free licenses.
  3. An economic model which provides sufficient benefit to individuals or firms engaged in development of works not exclusively retained.
  4. A software architecture consisting of largely independent, modular design, allowing individual developers to "wrap their minds" around a given problem, and for code to be readily sharable among different projects.
  5. A widespread, very low cost distribution network. The Internet.
  6. Ready access to reasonably powerful computers with development tools.
  7. Open, accessible, standards. GNU/Linux itself was based on the convergence of the POSIX standard and x86 hardware, with additions of TCP/IP networking, X11, numerous RFCs, etc. Closing standards, or making them inaccessible (by licensing or royalty requirements) is a serious threat to GNU/Linux.

And on top of these, factors indicating a probable ultimate success of free software.

...which gets us in a roundabout fashion to my point.

Free software depends on the intrinsic freedoms RMS espouses. This doesn't mean that a given adopter needs to embrace these, have them as a significant deciding factor, or even be aware of them. As a whole, however, free software's success is pinned on these principles. And due to the dynamic that they create -- technical, cost, and control characteristics -- the ultimate success of free software is inevitable. It's a inevitability that can be put off for a time, at a cost. But it's where we're headed.

And no, I don't foresee a world in which all software is free. But by and large the key components will be, and any significant software sector will have its free software alternatives. The proprietary tools which do remain should be the better for the competition, and may be successful if they provide a compelling advantage.

And since Google is my filing cabinet and I can never turn up the Langlois document when I'm looking for it....:

Keywords: computer industry history economics ibm dec vax unix microsoft apple richard n. langlois Cognition and Capabilities: Opportunities Seized and Missed in the History of the Computer Industry system 360 RISC ken olsen

Reading List

Some texts which have influenced my thinking on free software, in addition to Langlois's article. No particular order.

Intent is to extend the following list to include a brief paragraph describing the work's significance.

Richard Stallman, The GNU Manifesto

Makes the moral argument, lays the roadmap, and starts the journey. A technological, political, and moral manifesto.

Steve McConnell, Code Complete


Much of the technical aspects of what make free software tick (largely: modularity) are layed out in this book, published, ironically, by Microsoft Press.

Carl Shapiro & Hal Varian, Information Rules

Lock in. What it is. How to avoid it (for users) or instill it (for vendors). Much on Microsoft from a DoJ? specialist.

Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

Interplay of law, commerce, society, and technology.

Weber, Stephen, The Success of Open Source

An extremely good, cogent, and thorough review and analysis of free software's history, foundations, motivators, and potential. Extends Langlois's history through 2004, adding both breadth and depth. Makes extensive references to Lessig and Mancur Olsen (below). Busts a number of the more prevalent myths and sloppy thinking on the topic without introducing too many of his own.

Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma

Or, how to understand ground-up revolutions.

Jarred Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

The best nutshell I can give is that I debated including this in the bibliography of a talk on free software licensing for the O'Reilly Open Source Summit in Monterey, 2000. Then found that Red Hat's CTO Michael Tiemann was giving an entire presentation on it. Briefly: what circumstances give rise to robust, sustainable, overwhelming diversity.

Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

The social-organizational concept behind free software projects. Somewhat fanciful, but the stake in the ground to which most subsequent analyses refer.

Other books and works of note:

Expand on these as well.

Note that these are notable, but not essential works.


For an earlier take on a lot of this, as well as some interesting links, see my post Comments and Criticism to the Kuro5hin article An Economist/Programer writes on Open Source largely concerning U.S. Federal Reserve economist Gerald P. Dwyer, Jr. and his article "The Economics of Open-Source Software" (pdf), posted May 29, 2000.

-- KarstenSelf - 10 Oct 2003

-- KarstenSelf - 25 Mar 2003

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