Open Source

Are Microsoft and IBM both missing the point of open source?

On the surface, it appears that Microsoft opposes anything related to open source, and IBM embraces it. However, that may not be the case. Read on to make sense of Microsoft, IBM, and the open source debate.


Bill O'Brien

Microsoft doesn't like open source and is ranting against it. "Microsoft is trying to shore up its defenses as the tide is coming in," said Adam Jollans, marketing manager for IBM Software for Linux in the European region, according to a CNET News.com report. "They're trying to stop the tide, but the tide comes in whether you want it to or not."

And now, IBM is championing open source and Linux? That would be very strange indeed since IBM represents, in many ways, the antithesis of open source.

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IBM’s proprietary history
Back when the PC/AT arrived, IBM had a problem. It was already collecting a small royalty on the ISA bus from clone makers, but clone PCs were priced well under what IBM was charging—vendors weren't holding out for a 50 percent markup—and were slowly eroding IBM's market share.

Intent on reacquiring its dominant position among consumers (a place it had held for about four months), IBM introduced the MicroChannel Architecture (MCA) bus to stem the rising tide of knockoffs. The thought was that everyone would move in lockstep behind IBM just as they had when the PC was first introduced; and with a high royalty fee tacked on to the MCA bus, no one could send in the clones.

IBM was partly right. The royalties were so high that very few clone manufacturers ever bothered to license MCA. MicroChannel Architecture hardware was more expensive to produce than ISA, and since the whole world was already using the ISA bus for expansion cards, there was little incentive for card manufacturers to make interface boards that used MCA. High prices and limited expansion capability did not make MCA systems popular. The media pretty much tore into IBM, depicting it as the bad boy of computing that was trying to corner the market for itself.

They’re both wrong
You might think that IBM, having learned such a costly and embarrassing lesson, would be the last company in the world to kick sand at Microsoft for panning open source. Then again, perhaps it isn't a reprimand at all. Perhaps Jollans isn't scolding Microsoft as much as he might be warning Bill Gates that some things are inevitable.

Of course, as pro open source as that might seem, both companies have missed the boat entirely.

The spirit of open source isn't that all software must be free. It's not an entitlement program for the economically challenged or the disgruntled. Nor is the spirit of open source a mandate that everyone should be able to modify source code to suit personal needs. Not everyone can write code—in fact, programming is a skill shared by relatively few.

The spirit of open source is that a product—be it hardware or software—should be designed to accommodate the user, not the other way around. IBM came to grips with the open source spirit when its MCA systems failed to infiltrate the industry. Other vendors stepped in and accommodated computer buyers and, therefore, dominated.

Microsoft has already encountered the spirit of open source by modifying certain aspects of XP to accommodate the federal court system. It will most certainly continue to accommodate its customers when the majority of them are faced with mandatory registration, dual 52-character code keys, and the somewhat disheartening prospect of needing to reregister XP after a CPU upgrade (and that's only the tip of the iceberg). Microsoft may think of itself as the only OS game in town, but it still needs to sell products to continue being profitable.

To IBM, I can only say that open source is not an inevitable tide. Tides ebb and flow. Open source is not a revolution against something, but rather an evolution toward a goal.

Microsoft needs to understand that open source does not mean the death of intellectual property; it's the spark that keeps creativity from stagnating. And it's certainly not un-American. The Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution—these are all open source documents, created through community effort.

And to those who think I've forgotten about the GPL's little annoyance called "releasing your code into the public," I haven't. As far as I'm concerned, that tenet is just an enforcement tool, a lever to be used against companies and individuals who fly in the face of the open source spirit. As a general principle, it's rather meaningless because, as everyone knows, there's code that you release for free, and then there's code that makes your software work. There's no reason to suspect that a programmer or a company would just give code away. Remember, anything is, and should be, worth only what you've paid for it.

Bill O'Brien is a frequent contributor to CNET and ZDNet. When he's not writing his Linux at Large column for CNET or his Hard Edge column for Computer Shopper, he tries to sleep for a few hours or walk his dog.


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