This isn't “Open Source”
Published 11:10, 27 February 09
As a kind of pint-sized free software fidei defensor I feel obliged to counter some of the misconceptions that are put about on the subject around the Web.
But I find myself in a slightly embarrassing situation here, in that I need to comment on some statements that have appeared in the virtual pages of Computerworld UK.
The piece is entitle “Open Sauce”, but it ought really be called “”Open Source””, since its author, Richard Steel, the CIO of Newham, seems to have such distaste for the concept that he can't bring himself even to write the words without sanitising them between the quotation marks.
He is reacting to the UK Government's Action Plan on open source, and I'd like to react to those reactions.
Mr Steel writes:
I don’t like the term “Open Source”. It’s misleading; what many people mean is “anything but Microsoft”; few businesses actually use open source directly – they buy software derived from open source that has been commercially packaged and sold with support, which, in practice, is little different to licensed software.
Well, no: there's nothing misleading in the term. It's tightly defined by the rigorous and well-understood Open Source Definition, which has nothing whatsoever to do with “anything but Microsoft”; indeed, Microsoft actually has some OSD-approved licences – the Microsoft Public License and Microsoft Reciprocal License: so does this mean that Microsoft is pushing “anything but Microsoft” too?
And what on earth does it mean to say “few businesses actually use open source directly – they buy software derived from open source that has been commercially packaged and sold with support, which, in practice, is little different to licensed software”?
The don't “buy” software “derived” from open source: it *is* open source, even if it's derived from it - that's the whole point of open source. And you don't *buy* it – you license it, just like you license propretary software. Some may chose to buy proprietary licences, but it doesn't change the fact that they are using open source software.
“Open Source” software development, in my experience, lags proprietary development by several years. I don’t think we could achieve the anytime, anywhere fixed and mobile infrastructure with tele-presence we require, now, for flexible and new ways of working using only Open Source.
This is my favourite FUD. Let's just look at the facts, shall we?
Leading DNS server? BIND, open source. Leading email server? Sendmail, open source. Leading Web server? Apache, open source. Then there's Firefox, a browser whose innovation finally forced Microsoft to update its old and creaking Internet Explorer 6 after years of lazy, monopolistic inaction.
Or perhaps we might look at a few other major innovations. How about the Internet? Protocols and early software all open source. What about the Web? Protocols and early software all open source. Or nearer the present, what about those dinky little netbooks?
Did they come with some innovative proprietary software? Nope, GNU/Linux. And on the software side, what do companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, del.icio.us, Flickr all have in common? Yes, you guessed it, they are *all* built on free software, and also contribute back to the open source world.
Now, call me biased (I am), but I don't see much innovation coming from proprietary companies in there. On the “mobile infrastructure” front, you've got not just Limo and Android, but open source Symbian, too.
And whatever this telepresence thing is that we apparently require, you can bet your boots that all the exciting and innovative stuff is being built on open source infrastructure, because that's what cash-strapped startups do. So the idea that this “Open Source” concept that so besmirches the word processor that we must carefully quarantine it in those safe quotes actually *lags* proprietary software is simply risible.
I'll leave the last word to the “Open Sauce” post:
If it works for you – fine. I wouldn’t rule-out so-called “Open Source”; Newham has used it for some applications since the time it did its deal with Microsoft (probably the first UK public sector procurement of Microsoft as a supplier) and continues to do so.