TCS Daily

Source Socialism

By Sonia Arrison - October 3, 2002 12:00 AM

At a recent Stanford University lecture, open source proselytizer Bruce Perens encouraged students to get involved in the open source political movement. A few folks were enthused, but many seemed confused by how a method of software production and distribution can ignite such activism.

Open source software products are usually free of charge and are created and altered by many different individuals. The Linux operating system, which can be used instead of Microsoft Windows, is an example of an open source product. Linux is popular with many technical folks because of its quality, but not all of them have political feelings about it.

Indeed, there would have been much less confusion if Perens had given his talk to a political science or sociology class where students regularly consider terms like "equity," "empowerment," and "social contracts." It will clearly take more time to incite electrical engineering and computer science students, let alone the masses.

Perens bragged about his notoriety from creating the "electric fence," a free, sophisticated bug finder for Linux and by helping to create the Debian project - a free operating system that eventually went with NASA into space. He donated much of his personal time to these projects and, in his own words, was also "stealing time from Pixar to work on Linux." His was a story of toiling at boring jobs so that he could serve a higher purpose: to create something that everyone could use and appreciate at no charge. But this idealism didn't resonate with everyone.

"How can I make a living if everyone is using free software?" asked one student. That's a good question, and Mr. Perens didn't offer much of an answer. There is some employment in the open-source market (in service and support), he said, and he also argued that some forms of proprietary software wouldn't go away.

For instance, Perens argued that Intuit can relax because "no one will ever make an open source version of TurboTax." Apparently, this product doesn't have enough sex appeal for the open source community.

But the pressing question is not whether open source can make its creators money, or its purported advantages over proprietary software. The current issue is whether government should be used to force an increase in open source deployment. A good deal of the frenzy is a reaction to the success of Microsoft.

Perens's movement, the "Sincere Choice" platform, was founded, he says, in response to an industry group called "Software Choice," which argues for merit-based software purchasing decisions and is supported in large part by Microsoft. For many, Microsoft's problem is that it makes successful products and doesn't want to co-operate with competitors.

While there have been many responses to this grievance, including the famous antitrust trial, there is only one answer for those wanting to change things in the long run: make a better and more enticing product than Microsoft.

Microsoft has market power because it creates products that satisfy technology needs at the right price. If the open source community's products better satisfy those needs at a better price, then it shouldn't be necessary to legislate the use of open source in government departments, as some California activists suggested in August. It also shouldn't be necessary to legislate smaller items like the exact parts of a state's information technology (IT) infrastructure that must remain open, as Perens wants to do.

If a government agency chooses to use an open or mixed system for efficiency and cost reasons, that is fine. But forcing the taxpayer's IT budget to favor one type of system over another for purely political reasons is wrong and antithetical to the spirit of the open source community.

Many examples, such as California's recent Oracle scandal, show that governments don't always make the right decisions when it comes to technology procurement issues. Legislating government's choices in an effort to push one type of software ahead of another is just as bad.

Sonia Arrison is director of the Center for Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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