My Open Source Philosophy

It may seem strange that someone who has made his living for over 35 years in the software business, with at least 15 of those years in charge of a product for which we charged significant licence fees, should advocate the open source movement and the supply of software for free. This paper clarifies, and then justifies, my stance on this. I hope that in doing so I may add to the debate on the subject by showing why I believe that despite the free availability of software there is still significant revenues and profit to be made by those that wish to supply solutions to the business community for money.

Several years ago I was a strong advocate for Microsoft. I was responsible for establishing a PC based office automation environment within my company and I saw important marketing effort advocating a move from the horrors of the DOS environment to the ease of use that the WIMP (windows, icons, mouse, point) environment provided being driven by Microsoft with a pricing strategy that beat its competitors easily. Two specific deals in particular spring to mind. The first was bundling networking within the operating system where previously we had had to purchase a separate licence (DECNET) and the second was to create an office bundle at a price not much above a single application where previously we had been purchasing these items independently. Then, as part of my role to set future direction for a product I was responsible for, I became a beta tester for windows 95 about 18 months before it was released.

So why do I now think differently? The turning point for me came when I discovered Linux and installed it on my PC at home. I had watched Windows 95 move through new releases which added a small amount of new functionality but which required me to pay for another upgrade licence, I had watched licence conditions change so that key office software at work was not available to me at home anymore, I had paid good money (not to Microsoft) for a mail/news reader that didn’t quite do what I wanted but there was no way to modify it and, most importantly, I was suffering from system crashes and there was no way to solve the problem. I realised in Linux I had found a way to provide me with free software and a mechanism for getting complex crashes fixed.

Back in the late 1980s, I had been actively involved in trying to work out how to improve the quality of code that my company produced. I was directed to, and read, Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To me it taught an important lesson. Quality cannot be stitched on to the side of software, it has to be built in by each individual working on it. What open source does, is that by exposing the insides of software to peer review, encourages the producers of the code to consider quality as they go along and also enables code that does not match up to be seen and then improved.

Unlike some, I do not despise people who wish to make a living selling software. I do regard those who abuse their monopoly power and break the law in order to keep or improve their competitive position as reprehensible and I expect the authorities to take appropriate steps to prevent further occurance and to penalise those who do so for their behaviour. But that aside, I regard my use and support of open source a competitive issue and one in which I support the supplier who best meets my needs now and in to the future.

From this perspective there is an interesting balance here. On the one side I get a lot of functionality for free. Not just the kernel but the wealth of applications that come with it. But the downsides are also not insignificant. I cannot run many of my excellent games (although some do surprisingly well under wine), configuration of any particular feature can still be a tortuous process (particularly newer peripherals – like my usb palm pilot:-)) , fonts don’t always perform well (particularly in conjunction with printing). What ultimately drives me towards Open Source is that by giving something of my abilities (from writing software and or documentation to simply searching for bugs or critising it) I am both giving something back for the benefit I have received from the community and I am tipping the balance towards a longer term, better cheaper solution to my computing needs.