“Open Source is an intellectual property destroyer. I can’t imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual property business.” So said Jim Allchin, Microsoft's Windows operating system chief as part of a statement on Feb 14 that also intimated that such freely distributed software was also a threat to research and development and innovation.
Whether this blast at hackers and casual coders worldwide is indicative of his deep rooted beliefs or just prompted by the imminent announcement that Microsoft was about to announce a US$135 million investment in Corel, a company that recently cast off its Linux projects, is by the by. It’s the fact that almost all of his claims are false, in particular the last one.
It’s ironic in that in this clash of corporates versus independents, free software is claimed to be a threat to innovation. Sometimes it’s a threat, true—anyone who encountered this Valentine’s AnnaKournikova virus knows that—but a threat to innovation? In fact, it’s very existence is an incentive to innovate. When Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in the mid-eighties, the motivation behind it was to promote four kinds of freedom for developers of software:
- The freedom to run a program, for any purpose.
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.
- The freedom to redistribute copies as you will so you can help you neighbour.
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
In the world of computers, these tenets of free software promote the hacker ethic of collaboration, communication and innovation. They also encourage diversification and competition not only between those that work under them, but between the camps of free and proprietary software in continual games of one-upmanship. Can this software be better? How can it improve and be added to? What will attract the user? If someone believes that they can do better, they have all the freedom to try, be it by starting over from scratch or by attempting to modify the already existing code.
Allchin's perceived threat to innovation may stem simply from the fact that closed software exists to begin with, alluding to the adage of ‘Innovate, don’t imitate’ adopted to ‘Innovate on our system, don’t imitate it’ as any company like Microsoft would. Perhaps he would have it that free software developers have spent far too much time on rehashing applications and operating systems that already exist. Perhaps so indeed, but without imitation there is only monopoly through lack of competition and a lack of incentive to innovate as a result. Perhaps he should also consider that proprietary software by default makes its own improvement and new, innovative uses of it by Joe Q. Hacker difficult as without access to its source code he cannot tell how it works and thus how its operation might be made more efficient, less buggy, or extended upon. Innovations will occur if source code is made available, even for a short period of time. An invitational event at the Atlanta Linux Showcase last year that opened and improved upon the source for Civilization : Call to Power for just 48 hours proved that.
What is interesting at the moment is who is imitating and who is innovating. In the server market at least, it is Microsoft whose Windows 2000 Server product is perceived to be lacking in reliability, security and the sheer number of bugs in its code in comparison to Linux, the flagship of the free software world. The next version of their operating system, Windows XP, will have to approach at least Linux standards if it is to claim back some of the 27% market share that the free software operating system has in the enterprise server market. Microsoft itself has 41%.
Likewise, the many and variegated free software projects being written to run on Linux (and many other operating systems as well, let's not forget) to increase its productivity as an operating system have still a thing or two to learn from Office and Visual Studio to be sure. It may be almost there in the enterprise market but at home, Microsoft accounts for over 90% of all computers. Consider that the true innovations in the IT world, those on a macro level, are the concepts and technologies on which tomorrow’s software is based—the web, XML, wearable computing—and that free or closed, today’s software is innovative only on a micro level, finding a new, cleverer way of accomplishing the same task. Apple old hands, for example, trashed the pre-release demo of Windows XP, with one claiming that the only original thing about Windows XP is the P.
Free software isn’t a threat to software innovation, or if it is, then it is no more a threat than those who would wipe out competition in the marketplace. The real threat to innovation is the assumption that everything has been done and no-one in the world of IT thinks that.