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A Response to Jim Allchin's Comments

Posted by Tim O'Reilly, 2/18/01 at 12:12:31 PM.

Like many others, I was surprised, disturbed, and disappointed by Jim Allchin's comments about open source software development, reported by CNet's News.com, to wit:

"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.... I'm an American, I believe in the American Way. I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policy makers to understand the threat.''

I was surprised, because in my recent dealings with people inside Microsoft, I've seen signs that the principles of collaborative, open source development are gaining a lot of headway there. The principles outlined in Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and The Bazaar are seen to have a lot of validity, and Microsoft is taking steps to apply them both inside the company and by opening up to certain kinds of joint development with customers.

I was disturbed, because Allchin suggested that open source is somehow "un-American." He can hardly be unaware of the historical resonances of such a statement, that it harks back to the Cold War images of free market democracies versus communism. To have the discussion about alternate business models descend to such a level demonstrates either that Allchin was quoted out of context (since I hear he's a thoughtful, intelligent guy), or that Microsoft has truly grown desperate in its fear of the competitive threat from Linux. Open source comes close to the heart of the American way: innovation (both in software and in business models), and a free market of ideas. Open source and proprietary software models are duking it out in the marketplace in the grand American tradition.

I was disappointed, because Allchin's comments ignored all of the reasoning behind the widespread change from the term "free software" to the term "open source." (While there is a lot of overlap between the ideals of the free software movement and the open source movement, the two are not identical.)

But even advocates of free software such as Richard Stallman do not actually seek the end of intellectual property; instead, they use the intellectual property system to create a class of property that is freely redistributable for the public good, under a license that is more protective of that property than if it were merely placed in the public domain. Their gift of software to the public is no more un-American than any other charitable activity, in which people share freely of the excess of their own goods.

To be sure, Richard Stallman is evangelical in attempting to convince others that free software is a moral issue, and not just a pragmatic choice, but he is hardly alone in asserting a forceful moral position about issues for which there is no wide cultural consensus.

Perhaps more to the point, the essential message of open source advocates such as Eric Raymond, Bob Young of Red Hat, or myself, is that open source is a profoundly pragmatic choice, one that enables greater innovation and economic success than the proprietary software model it seeks to replace. It is not about destroying intellectual property, but instead about deploying it more effectively.

It's ironic that Microsoft would make such a statement when it has itself been such a beneficiary of the fruits of the kind of development model that Allchin is now attacking. To give only two examples:

1. It was IBM's decision to open up the PC hardware architecture (effectively "open sourcing" its design) that created the explosion of creativity in the early 80's that led to the PC-centric world we now take for granted. Microsoft built its proprietary software empire on a foundation of openness.

2. The greater part of Microsoft's revenue in the late 90's came from the incorporation of internet functionality (mostly developed on an open source model) into its products. The upgrade stream came not just from innovation inside Microsoft, but in large part from innovation by the very community Allchin now seems to portray as the "worst thing that could happen to the software business."

Microsoft is certainly threatened by open source, but it is threatened in that most American of ways, by competition not merely in products but in business models. Just as the open PC architecture undercut the sales of proprietary computer hardware from mainframe and minicomputer vendors, but led to a vast expansion of the market, and huge opportunities for companies that were able to exploit the new business models it made possible, open source software will threaten many companies, but it will drive the further expansion of the industry, and create an untold amount of valuable new intellectual property.

P.S. Some folks, like Microsoft developer Josh Allen, seem to think that Allchin's remarks about the government promoting open source might be a reference to the report of The President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. I was at one of the meetings that led to the report, and perhaps ironically, that meeting was attended by representatives of Microsoft as well as open source advocates like myself, Brian Behlendorf, and Eric Raymond. Richard Stallman was not one of the speakers, and the tone of both the meetings and the report was focused on the benefits of shared collaborative development, especially in areas where commercial vendors were not providing the necessary tools or software.

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