Necessary evils

The open-source world seems to be divided into at least two camps: the religious and the pragmatic. To the former group, proprietary and closed-source code are evil. The latter group sees proprietary and closed-source code as benign and even occasionally necessary.

Let me point out that free software (as in free speech) and open source are not synonymous. I can give away source code and forbid you to use it without permission. Nor are proprietary and closed source synonymous, though one usually implies the other.

Regardless, I'm in the latter group. To me, proprietary and closed-source code are like guns. One can use a gun to protect oneself against evil people, or one can use it to murder rivals. In the latter case, it is the murderer who is evil, not the gun.

I will agree with the religious zealots on one very important point. The world of commercial and free software is definitely engaged in a war of good and evil. And the obvious examples of evil that one can cite usually involve closed-source code. Open-source advocates tend to point to Microsoft as evidence of the evils of closed source. But for all we know, Microsoft could also be using open source as a weapon. It is entirely possible that large portions of Windows 2000 have been lifted from programs that are protected under the GNU GPL (General Public License). The fact that GPL code is freely available makes it that much easier for a company such as Microsoft to steal it. Does that make GPL evil? Of course not.

Now, before you Microsoft stockholders get your knickers in a knot, I am not accusing the company of stealing GPL code. If anything, the evidence points to the contrary. If Microsoft made it a practice to steal GPL code, it would be more likely to meet projected ship dates.

I also don't mean to imply that individuals at Microsoft are dishonest about their motives. At worst, Microsoft officials are simply misquoted. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for example, was recently misquoted as saying, "I feel deeply that we behaved in every instance with super integrity." The reporters might have got it right if they heard him whisper afterward, "Most of the time, it was soup."

Open, closed, proprietary, and free source are weapons wielded by both sides and are not in and of themselves good or evil.

These matters are currently close to my heart, because I work with Linux Standard Base (LSB). I want to make it clear that it is by no means the goal of LSB to encourage the use of proprietary software. But as we get nearer to completion of the LSB specification, it occurs to me that, as a side effect, LSB could encourage the use of proprietary software.

One of the goals of LSB is to allow Linux providers to differentiate their products without breaking application compatibility. LSB is concerned only with the layer above the Linux kernel that determines whether an application will install and run properly. The point is to enable customers to choose the Linux distribution that best suits their needs without fear that they will encounter problems running their favourite applications.

LSB can best achieve its goals if the software LSB deals with is open source. The best way to guarantee a level playing field is by ensuring that there are no secrets in the layer of software that determines whether an application will be compatible across Linux distributions.

If you think about it, the implication is that it is therefore non-threatening to have proprietary software outside the scope of LSB. For example, one can write a proprietary, closed-source installation program for Linux without creating an imbalance in the Linux market. You can't assert control over the Linux standard with a proprietary installation program. Once you've got an LSB-compliant Linux installed, the proprietary installation program becomes irrelevant. You can still run any LSB-compliant applications.

So my advice to the open-source community is to focus on what really matters. Fight the good fight when open source creates a level playing field. And relax when proprietary source code is non-threatening. That will ensure the continued success of both open and closed source.

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