A Contrarian View of Open Source
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But at least Open Source is clearly better than the Microsoft stranglehold. Man, US Steel, General Motors, and Standard Oil at their worst and cruelest were better than that.

What's the real price you pay for free software? The real price you pay is having to bow the knee to the weird organizational model and the freaky, geeky social values that prop that up. If you're the user, you have to hang out with Linux freaks.

Yet Another Guy in Audience: And buy us beer!

That is the price. You pay a price in attention and respect, and hours and hours and hours of selfless devotion. You keep feebly hoping that something will actually work right out of the box, and maybe even look nice. But then you get stuff like Gnome, KDE and Eazel ... They just don't like to do the boring stuff for the stupid people! That's just not in the job description! It's not even a job. That's the secret.

You know, information doesn't get to be free. But that's got very little to do with the bits, or the atoms, or the bandwidth, or the speed of the copying, or any of these things that techies lick their chops over. Information stays expensive because of the social processes in which information is embedded.

Let me see if I can make this clear to you with a whole series of nice little literary metaphors. We need to personalize this problem, as a series of human stories about human relationships.

First of all, let's just forget about stuff like cyberspace and the speed of light and the weightless bits. Given that there is a ferocious triple dominance of Microsoft on operating systems, Intel in chips, and Dell in hardware, the computer industry is finally getting boring. Almost as boring as my own business, the book business. It's still pretending to innovate, but its glamour routine has gotten all ritualized. The machines are slow, the programs are bloated, the changes are cosmetic, just like the heyday of Detroit's Big Three carmakers, so many years ago.

The computer business wants to be really hot and sexy. It's like eavesdropping on a rich kid's affair with a supermodel. He's the user, he's the customer. He's eager, he's gullible. But she'd better be taut, hot, and totally glittering, or he'll pitch her right off the edge of the loading dock.

She's the vendor. She's this lean, mean, beanpole- tall jet-setter who's always heaving iron in her gym or preening before the cameras, screaming hysterically for next season's fashions. And as long as both of them don't know what's coming next -- as long as they can't outguess that, as long as they just plain don't know -- then they'll be as glamorous as all get-out. Just as long as their bubble of mutual infatuation has yet to burst.

Because in the information economy, everything important that happens is about the relationship. The information economy is about who promises what to whom. Behind the scenes, it's all about commitment.

The point is to make it harder to break up with me, the vendor, than it is to put up with my continual exploitation. There are basically six ways to do this. They get used in the information business all the time.

Number One. A contract. We'll put it on paper. We'll make it a legal, binding relationship. We somehow agreed that we really need each other in order to go on living. We stood in front of witnesses and we agreed to stick it out no matter what. That's normal, it's honest, it works. Unless it doesn't work, in which case it gets really nasty and leaves permanent scars.

Number Two. Brand-Specific Training. I'm really complicated and hard to figure out, but I give you something you just can't seem to get elsewhere. We spent endless days and nights talking over all my painful personal quirks and kinks, and getting all wrapped up in me and my needs. Now that you finally understand me, it just seems exhausting to throw me over and try to date somebody new.

Number Three. Search Costs. There's probably somebody else who would suit you as well as I do, but you're never going to find them -- not in a sorry little town like this, anyway.

Number Four. Information Formats. Nobody else can even speak our language around here. We've got a private argot of voodoo keyboard rituals. It's like a private lovers' baby-talk. If you try to ditch me and pick up somebody else talking that way, she'll look at you as if you came from Mars.

Number Five. Durable Purchases. You bought a huge mainframe and special scanners and printers, and a car and a fridge and a house. You can't just walk away from all that. Boy, can I ever make that cost you.

Number Six. Loyalty programs. I seem to like you better every time we go out together. I come up with all kinds of sweet little favors based on how well we're getting to know each other. Your Mom and Dad will love me. So will your friends and family. Look how thoughtful and generous I am with the people who can commit. Let's all get real, real cozy.

There are some other interesting aspects of this informational romance. They may not seem real technical -- you may not find them built into the hardware -- but these gambits all get people to pay big, expensive wads of money for information that wants to be free.

A. Branding and Reputation. Listen, baby: you can trust me. I've got breeding: my famous family of products has been around for generations. I'm just not that kind of guy! Why would I risk all that just to take advantage of you in this one little situation? Stick with the gold standard -- me and mine -- and save yourself a lot of heartbreak.

B. Standards-Setting. Everybody depends on me. I shoulder the grave responsibility of being reliable and predictable. I am the authoritative source through which all good things flow. The government smiles on me. So do international committees. If it doesn't work with my stuff, it just plain doesn't work.

C. Expectations Management. Also known as "Fear Uncertainty and Doubt." I know you're thinking of buying from that other vendor. But his stuff is hazardous and will injure you. Besides, I'm making one of those myself, just next quarter. Mine will be much better than his, and more people will use it, so you'll just have to buy it from me anyway, and plus, everybody will laugh at you. You'll lose your job. Look at the way I stepped on my competitors. I could step on you, too.

D. Creeping Featuritis. I'll add more and more "attractive" features to keep my jaded user intrigued. You like eye shadow? Lip gloss? Tattoos? Piercings? How about some latex and black rubber? Would a clown wig help?

E. Sell the Organization, Not the Information. Let's be very clear about this. I'm not selling you ones and zeros. You are hiring me as your grand vizier, because I have a deep cybernetic insight that is denied to lesser beings. I'm an indispensable part of your management team. Just give me your wallet, I'll look after all that.

F. Dubbed Local Versions. It's too hard to get a date in the English-language market, because they're all so cynical and sophisticated! But I'll be wonderfully glamorous if I take everything I learned and translate it into Hindi, Chinese and Malay.

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