Archive of UserLand's first discussion group, started October 5, 1998.

Re: Email to Brian Behlendorf

Author:Brian Behlendorf
Posted:4/24/2000; 1:00:44 AM
Topic:Email to Brian Behlendorf
Msg #:16601 (In response to 16542)
Prev/Next:16600 / 16602

"I like software of all kinds, colors, creeds and persuasions" - I'm sorry Dave, no, I don't. I don't like software that contains bugs I am powerless to fix (or powerless to pay someone other than the author to fix). I don't like software that coerces me into a non-open protocol or fixed platform. I don't like software that, even if the source code is published, can never have a life beyond that which the original author dictates. That is my set of preferences as a software user. That doesn't mean I don't use it, it's just that when given a choice between a superior commercial product and an inferior open product, I will tend to chose the inferior open product unless it is unusable to me.

As a software developer, I may feel differently. I can completely understand the reprehension that closed-source developers may feel when someone who wouldn't pay for your software anyways demands you make it free. It sounds very selfish - although the selfish user is no more common than the selfish programmer, and in fact being selfish is what drives capitalism (and biological evolution) in the first place.

In fact, it is not just software developers who are feeling pressure from competitors who give things away for free - look at content providers, who were so used to the idea of getting a modest revenue stream from the subscription model, now basically forced to give that up for advertising revenue or, if this AOL/TimeWarner conglomerate does what everyone expects, to be "bundled" into a "package" along with dozens of other content sources, a la cable TV. Ew.

In fact, everyone in the Internet industry at one point or another has to compete against someone who provides the same service for free - everyone, that is, with a business model not based purely on time and materials. Sometimes it is easy for the non-free offerings to compete against the free offerings - witness the difference between locating your web site on Geocities or some other free hosting provider, versus paying the money to get a rack and hardware at a colo facility. Sometimes it is not - is the for-pay WSJ and NYT all that much better than

We live in vicious times - the massive capital infusion into this market over the last few years has meant that there are a ton of funded startups with business models based on the notion of giving something valuable away for free in exchange for opportunity to make money elsewhere. When companies with 80% market share do this it is called "dumping" or "tying" and generally gets them some special attention by the U.S. Justice department. But when a startup does it - it's celebrated as an innovative strategy. Is it wrong? I don't know - but every open source company I can think of does this, as does mine, as do other large closed-source software companies too. I tend to think it's not wrong, because it can often be the only way for a small company or independent developer to break into a market that otherwise they would have never been able to enter, and I generally think that what's good for the little guy is good for the world as a whole.

Pragmatically speaking, I think it's fine to have a world where open and closed source software speak - by far the most important thing is that the protocols and APIs be stable and open and free from encumberance, that the software source code is open is secondary. However I think we are approaching a future where in every software category there is an Apache equivalent, a tool that is good enough to do the job 90% of the time. There will always be commercial opportunity for the remaining 10%, but admittedly that's a lot smaller than today's software market.

Is that a bad thing? Is there anyone out there who thinks we don't have enough operating systems, programming languages, network APIs, word processors (and associated file formats), software CD players, etc? Does anyone feel that the software world is not complex enough? What if the software world of the future was much more homogenous than it is now, but the most common software was open? Wouldn't that be a good thing?

I often think this is the future we are heading towards - one with less and less software. It is the only way that the software world can attack complexity, which is the number one problem with software today. There is far far too much reinvention of wheels - too many newfangled libraries that give a small advantage over existing solutions but has a completely different interface - far too much Not Invented Here. The world needs less software. And I believe it is this future that Richard Stallman is so impatient to see, and which many of the zealots and even average developers and users, either conciously or subconciously, are working towards.

This sounds ominous at first glance - what will happen to all those programmers! - until you realize that innovation is not stifled at all, programmers with good ideas will always be able to make a living adding to that open software infrastructure. In fact it's the protections that the Open Source requirements provide that ensure that the ability to innovate is always there. There another fact - computer programmer is about the most secure job position on the face of the earth today, and even with a completely free/open infrastructure, there will continue to be a huge need for customizations, extensions, configuration, management, etc. So I think one can hardly say that software development will cease to be a profitable career.

The question to ask is, will the model of paid-for software development that Userland is used to, as other big commercial software companies are used to, survive? Should they survive? What's a comparable situation - robots and automation replacing line workers in auto factories? Or stagecoach operators put out of business by the automobile before that?

What I can't tell from your email to me is whether your beef is with the Open Source philosophy/mentality/economic theory, or with specific personalities in this arena. If it's the latter, well, I'm not going to issue a statement agreeing with you, as that's a battle better left between you and them as individuals. If the former... I don't know that there is much common ground between us, at least not enough worth issuing a "statement" about. I'm fine if you want to sell commercial software - the odds are very strong I won't even consider using it though. Nothing personal!

As for the zealots - ignore them, the ones with no substance will disappear over time. But ignore free competitors at your own risk.


p.s., I will be travelling this week so my responses will most likely be delayed. Please email me at if you want to make sure I see your response, I don't usually spontaneously visit the web site.

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