The Power of Free

by Kurt Cagle

M. David Peterson and I host a regular podcast, eXplorations, and most recently spent sometime discussing the open source movement and the underlying "business case" for open source. Mark (the M. side of his name) usually tends to argue the proprietary source side of things, while I tend to argue the open source side, and while things can get fairly intense in our discussions - as for any two people on different sides of a contentious issue, the rhetoric can get heated - we do this largely to discuss some of the deeper aspects of the programming world that we (and our audience, hopefully) occupies.

Mark most recently brought up one of the core questions that anyone asks of open source, and one of those that is perhaps most relevant to any of us with mortgages and kids to feed: "Where is the value proposition in open source for the programmer? Where's the business model for actually making this work pay?"


24 Comments

M. David Peterson
2006-07-13 15:10:06
Hey Kurt,


I think I need to set aside a solid 2 days to be able to get through all of this, but it seems it will be well worth my time ;)


To the rest of you, I have been getting the latest recording edited and ready for release, and in fact am in process of getting this finished as we speak. As soon as its ready to go, I will post an announcement to my XML.com blog.

len
2006-07-14 06:24:52
1) What you are saying is that software is becoming the least important component in the systems or at least so commoditized that it sells for pennies per erg. That means the money goes elsewhere. In a sense, this is a return to the early days of computer science when software was an afterthought. Sun means to get money from hardware but that isn't working so far although it might. That market is extremely sensitive in the cost/reliability dynamic.


2) Google these terms: homo economicus, homo reciprocans, homo parochius, homo equalis. It is the combinations of these types that are driving the market. (Skip over the gay links that prove why PageRank has flaws given quantum entanglement in information sets.) How can you balance these types and get to a target market without massive expenditures (low energy transport model)?


At the bottom of this article is the same theme that has been repeated ad nauseam for the last ten years: "GET MICROSOFT!" and like the movie, "Get Shorty", the main character proves remarkably adaptible in the face of determined predators. I'm not too sure it means much other than it keeps improving Microsoft's skills at adaptation. No, if MS faces a serious challenge, it isn't Sun. Sun has to figure out how to sell SOMETHING or their stockholders are going to eviscerate their management and fire anyone who hired anyone else that kept us the 'must be free' rants. I've been through this; it is dark to watch indeed because whole buildings of people disappear overnight.


The challenge MS faces is what their culture will be after the founders leave. If you look at the history of NASA and similar core team-driven meteoric successes that drifted after the founders left, you see that in the very first phase, the office gophers rise quickly and begin to enforce process that lead to levels of plausible deniability and mediocrity. This happens for what appears to business people to be reasonable causes, but the effect is that the passion to build and to succeed are replaced by inner struggles for power and position (the triumph of homo equalis over homo parochius).

Danno
2006-07-14 12:18:48
I think you've overlooked the direct benefit of Open Sourcing your work: You don't have to do the whole job to see something you're interested in flourish.


It's like bone soup, you know? I can make a delicious soup with simply a bone and hot water, but if you bring some onions, it'll be even better!

len
2006-07-16 12:42:35
True enough but again, one has to maintain it too. Again, there is an inverse relationship of subjective views to objective implementations. Open source communities depend on homo reciprocans and parochius. Proprietary solutions depend on homo equalis or economicus. All depend on a user community that may not be code-savvy. If not, then the simplest solution for the possible space wins. This doesn't mean the simpler solution itself; for some tasks, it is the number of different things one can do with the same set of objects without losing sight of the goal of communication or entertainment.


If you were on a variety show, would you rather be a hit act with the wirewalkers who balance a pyramid of 12 people or the guy with the sock puppets given equal pay for time on stage? If I am to pick an open source product, I want there to be a smaller team making more money than a larger team sharing egoboo working on it.

Sylvain Hellegouarch
2006-07-17 07:41:37

There is a sense of entitlement here that borders on the delusional. Companies can only exist if they can service the needs of their customers, and if alternatives exist out there that are cheaper, better, faster, then customers will use those alternatives. Combine that with a huge body of legacy code that's continually being mined and improved by open source developers who want or need new features, and you see in this the recipe for serious economic problems. The market in general has become extremely oversaturated in most sectors, and while there may be some new "breakout" technology that will introduce a phase shift yet again, its unlikely that it will have the paradigm wrenching power that the Internet's emergence had.


Isn't it what has been happening to the pharmaceutical industry for the last 15 years?


Most major pharmaceutical companies have to keep researching and producing for drugs even to survive. The problem is that the market for huge profits is saturated already (e.g. drug for headaches). Therefore they cannot proove their drugs are better anymore but simply not worse.


Then they start loosing patents over drugs that were very lucrative but which has costed them lots of money and they start loosing their share as generics see the light. There is a shift there as well that I would happily compare to the IT industry.

M. David Peterson
2006-07-18 05:06:27
@Sylvain,


Some interesting comparisons to think about... If nothing else, you've put a "huh, I need to think about this more..." kind of "intrigued" smile on my face (that exist's also from the laugh that preceded it based on the imagery you provided. CLASSIC! :D)

len
2006-07-18 06:46:16
You can compare it to any information system that is saturated with facts or stories of relative value where value is a scalar adjusted to the situation semantic over time. Consider the effect of 24x7 news on cable and the internet. It creates endless repetition of an item that might have only been of original interest but is amplified into a global event by the frequency of presentation and density of the feedback (think Fox News and lots of commentators).


It is an animal that starves itself by consumption, a negative feedback loop into the semantic tensor that evaporates its value.

f3l
2006-07-18 11:04:09
"but even there what changes isn't qualitative, only qualitative."
i don't get it, a typo perhaps?
Kurt Cagle
2006-07-18 18:41:31
Thanks, it was a typo - it should be correct now.
Kurt Cagle
2006-07-18 18:43:56
>It is an animal that starves itself by consumption, a negative feedback loop into the semantic tensor that evaporates its value.<


I've often found it interesting that the contemporary usage of consumer (and consumption) has lost its originally somewhat negative connotations. Consumption until comparatively recently was another name for cancer.

len
2006-07-19 06:14:59
A good observation, Kurt. It is a cancer. It reproduces exclusively for its own good to the detriment of any living thing around it. A less deadly analogy is kudzu: originally imported into the Southern US to stop erosion, it takes over the ground by fast growth, chokes off the trees, leaves the soil worthless, and is resistant to strong poisons. Leave just a slice of a vine, and it starts all over again.


OTOH, there are those who will suggest that cheap AJAX systems that do 20% of the job without the overhead required to secure, protect, rate, and so on are a form of kudzu because like Gresham's Law, they are forcing good but more expensive software off the street. It isn't an indictment of AJAX, but of naive or slipshod software being sold to those who only see 'bright and shiny: the fishbrains' and bite hard.


Metta: to get off the path, one has to quit reciprocating.

Kurt Cagle
2006-07-19 10:33:08
Len,


This is the fundamental paradox of most software, though for good or ill I'm still not quite sure. Writing software is ... hard. We who do it for a living tend to lose sight of that fact, because we are naturally predisposed to dealing with the abstractions necessary to write good software, but in point of fact most people have neither the training nor the mental acuity to build all but the simplest of applications. Even within the ranks of software programmers there is a fairly significant gradient where most tend to prefer pre-existing libraries to build fairly simplistic applications, and the number of hard-core seriously skilled programmers probably numbers at best a few thousands, that out of a total population measured in billions. The number of people sufficiently skilled to write books and otherwise teach effectively on the subject measures in the hundreds - to the extent that within any given programming area (such as XML) this elite makes up perhaps a few dozen people. This of course is part of the reason why things like the XML convention always seems like old home week, because everyone DOES know everyone else.


What this means its that, when you get right down to it, AJAX is probably no more a crutch than any other language. It's distributed programming, something that has never been easy, because it requires that you think at a systemic level. Many programmers are not systems analysts - they don't think at the distributed, systemic level. Hell, most are barely capable of using OOP, and that as a methodology has a quarter century of best practices behind it, so its not really likely that they'll end up using AJAX except in the most sloppy way possible in order to get the sizzle.


I predict that AJAX will ultimately end up phasing into XForms or some other declarative XML framework within the next year. The two are natural complements - a lightweight typeless programming language with distributed capability working with an XML structural system where type is exogeitic (type is imposed from without, rather than being intrinsic). Add in a binding language on top of that, and you're home free - you have grammatical rules, a vocabulary, and a working semantic infrastructure, making it easier to automate and incorporate for the apprentice and journeyman programmers. It won't be adopted immediately, of course, and there will likely be a fair amount of code refactoring, but this is where those programmers likely get their payback for sloppiness.


-- Kurt

len
2006-07-20 06:17:25
Right, Kurt. That is the meaning behind "intelligence doesn't scale". It is another way of saying the effect of any long tail distribution is to create locales of competence (where a locale may not be physical but topical space). If members of these cooperate, one can build fantastically complex vertical applications or enable the interoperations of many horizontal applications. On the other hand, the same people will also be competing at some levels so as I said, the manifold becomes lumpy. That's ok as long as on balance, the ecology is self-sustaining. Study models of ecologies where for disease or invasion, the ecology drops below some population threshold and can't recover. Information does that as well depending on the energy model for supporting it. That is why I study low energy transport systems. The human brain is the gold standard for such systems. Open source is the manifestation on the web.


As for AJAX, XAML, XUL, yes. Presaged by MID. (for which I am glad because that project does away with any IP someone might want to grab for those ideas). So depending on the model of one's own economic reciprocity, it is a good idea to expose to visible web if one doesn't mind giving it up for the sake of securing a future (homo parochius) in an open source environment of reciprocal contribution (homo reciprocans).


Then it comes down to node competence. The manifold is not only lumpy, it bubbles like oatmeal. :-)

Asbjørn Ulsberg
2006-07-31 23:20:05
I'd like to read this, but reading large amount of text on-screen hurts my eyes, so I'd like to print it out, but since the O'Reilly network doesn't sport any print.css stylesheets, printing anything directly makes it horrible on paper (the menu and everything takes up half the page) and there's no separate print view. Giev please! :-)
tiffany lamp
2006-12-15 01:09:04
Some interesting comparisons to think about... If nothing else, you've put a "huh, I need to think about this more..." kind of "intrigued" smile on my face (that exist's also from the laugh that preceded it based on the imagery you provided. CLASSIC! :D)


http://www.tiffany-lamp-lighting.org

david
2006-12-19 18:30:09
very good


[1]- Which, it seems, Elliotte Rusty Harold has recently, and inadvertantly, smashed into itzy-bitzy pieces... I disagree with his verdict (and, it seems, he doesn't realize that IE already has support for this, and has for some time... My guess is that this is the reason they are not a part of the recent surge by Moz, Apple, and Opera) but I've learned the hard way not to take Elliotte to task without first thinking about it... For as LONG as necessary as to convince myself not to take him to task, only then to respond if I can't think of one single reason why its possible I might not be justified in taking him to task...


As such, this is my plan :)


Wish me luck (I'm going to need it, I think... :)

Kurter cheng
2006-12-19 18:31:09
Hi, thanks, I hadn't really intended to write this essay, and apologize to those of you who had to slog through it, but overall I think it does manage to articulate a lot of what I see happening right now in the software industry, both proprietary and open. There is a tendency that most people have of looking at the momet that they are in as being somehow unique and privileged, but I am inclined to say that we are rather more accurately about midway through a process that's been underway for nearly twenty years and that will likely stretch for another twenty, that is shaping the interactions between society and the computer/Internet combination. I believe that the "software industry" as we know it is a transient phenomenon, and that the relationship between those who create software and those that use software is a still evolving one - a relationship that likely will end up being far stranger than any can predict. As more things become digital (and this includes life itself, given the increasing power of genomics) resolving this relationship may very well prove to be one of the most significant social issues that we'll have to face in the years ahead.


simon
2006-12-20 05:59:53
thank you, are you a writer?
jade
2006-12-20 06:03:49
Right, Kurt. That is the meaning behind "intelligence doesn't scale". It is another way of saying the effect of any long tail distribution is to create locales of competence (where a locale may not be physical but topical space). If members of these cooperate, one can build fantastically complex vertical applications or enable the interoperations of many horizontal applications. On the other hand, the same people will also be competing at some levels so as I said, the manifold becomes lumpy. That's ok as long as on balance, the ecology is self-sustaining. Study models of ecologies where for disease or invasion, the ecology drops below some population threshold and can't recover. Information does that as well depending on the energy model for supporting it. That is why I study low energy transport systems. The human brain is the gold standard for such systems. Open source is the manifestation on the web.


As for AJAX, XAML, XUL, yes. Presaged by MID. (for which I am glad because that project does away with any IP someone might want to grab for those ideas). So depending on the model of one's own economic reciprocity, it is a good idea to expose to visible web if one doesn't mind giving it up for the sake of securing a future (homo parochius) in an open source environment of reciprocal contribution (homo reciprocans).


Then it comes down to node competence. The manifold is not only lumpy, it bubbles like oatmeal. :-)


len | July 20, 2006 06:17 AM

huaha
2006-12-21 17:29:12
Right, Kurt. That is the meaning behind "intelligence doesn't scale". It is another way of saying the effect of any long tail distribution is to create locales of competence (where a locale may not be physical but topical space). If members of these cooperate, one can build fantastically complex vertical applications or enable the interoperations of many horizontal applications. On the other hand, the same people will also be competing at some levels so as I said, the manifold becomes lumpy. That's ok as long as on balance, the ecology is self-sustaining. Study models of ecologies where for disease or invasion, the ecology drops below some population threshold and can't recover. Information does that as well depending on the energy model for supporting it. That is why I study low energy transport systems. The human brain is the gold standard for such systems. Open source is the manifestation on the web.


As for AJAX, XAML, XUL, yes. Presaged by MID. (for which I am glad because that project does away with any IP someone might want to grab for those ideas). So depending on the model of one's own economic reciprocity, it is a good idea to expose to visible web if one doesn't mind giving it up for the sake of securing a future (homo parochius) in an open source environment of reciprocal contribution (homo reciprocans

Kurt Cagle
2006-12-26 17:03:30
huaha,


I've found your analysis to be spot on here. From previous (and recent) experience, its rather incredible to find out how little expertise most people have, thought it's possibly just a function of experience. In tech this problem is actually somewhat exacerbated, because there are incredible pressures on most competent developers to move out of positions where they can continue learning to be good developers - they are promoted to management (where they burn out because they are forced to be good at the very skills that they didn't have initially that likely ended driving them into programming) or seek out management because there is typically a very real ceiling beyond which companies refuse to pay for talent, no matter how gifted. I find this ironic - in my experience good managers are generally replaceable beyond a certain point, but good programming talent (and the experience to wield it) is generally in very short supply.


This means that in any given IT organization, you often have your best programmers no longer writing code but instead riding herd on other programmers, you end up with a bunch of junior level programmers who are inexperienced and likely to reinvent the wheel simply because it would be cool to do so, and you have a non-technical management staff that alternately hold the IT department in disdain or awe, depending upon what they've managed to accomplish at any given point, but almost never understanding them. When you look at it in that light, its sometimes incredible that software gets written at all.


joan
2006-12-26 21:29:50
have been getting the latest recording edited and ready for release, and in fact am in process of getting this finished as we speak. As soon as its ready to go, I will post an announcement to my XML.com blog
Glass
2007-01-15 07:44:53
What you are saying is that software is becoming the least important component in the systems or at least so commoditized that it sells for pennies per erg. That means the money goes elsewhere. In a sense, this is a return to the early days of computer science when software was an afterthought. Sun means to get money from hardware but that isn't working so far although it might. That market is extremely sensitive in the cost/reliability dynamic.
http://www.glass-products.org
enchiridon Madrid
2007-01-30 02:34:36
M. David Peterson and I host a regular podcast, eXplorations, and most recently spent
> sometime discussing the open source movement and the underlying “business case” for open
> source. Mark (the M. side of his name) usually tends to argue the proprietary source
> side of things, while I tend to argue the open source side, and while things can get
> fairly intense in our discussions - as for any two people on different sides of a
> contentious issue, the rhetoric can get heated - we do this largely to discuss some of
> the deeper aspects of the programming world that we (and our audience, hopefully)
> occupies.
I do not agree. Go to http://www.bigtrades.info/hominy_Spain/omophagous_Comunidad%20de%20Madrid/enchiridon_Madrid_1.html