Tuesday, December 02, 2008

On Open Source

I am a big fan of Open Source. I think it is the greatest ode to teamwork: Just imagine, getting people from nearly all over the world, with completely different interests, who've never seen each other, to work on a common project! Simply amazing. The sophistication of processes that open source teams (well, at least in Linux development) have achieved deserves kudos. Not to mention the opportunity it gives for students and amateurs to learn both by doing and by actually seeing what goes on under the hood of any software application. Being open to scrutiny, bugs get fixed relatively quickly, and security flaws are fewer - well, that is at least what I've heard.

However, what bugs me is the simplistic formula - "Open source = good; Proprietary software = bad." That is, anybody, any entity that supports open source is cleansed and becomes pure good, while any entity that doesn't becomes an incarnation of the anti-Christ.

Take, for instance, this comment on a page debating the virtues and vices of Google:

"Google is not evil. They encourage open source software. They have effectively counteracted Microsoft and Apple closed source systems to the benefit of the public. ..."

(Ed: I've removed the part of the comment talking about text ads - those are great innovations and have nothing to do with evil or good.)

Of course, the author of this comment wasn't probably aware that Google's search algorithm is still secret. (Don't pop the PageRank paper at me now - Google hasn't open-sourced it's actual search algorithm that runs on production machines - a lesson they learnt after publishing the page-rank algorithm as grad students.) Or that Google has been sued many times for violating someone's patent (this maybe simply for money), or someone else's copyright. Or the fact that Google submitted to the Chinese censors without as much as a whimper.

If you are not giving out secrets that matter most to your company, then you are no different from all the companies that work with closed source. Why isn't this obvious to people? Why are we always on the lookout for a white knight that battles the dark satanic forces of commercialism?

Open source software is no longer groups of individuals creating world-class software for nothing but fame or their love of software development. Open source is now backed by companies with millions of dollars - think Google with Mozilla/Linux, IBM and HP with Linux, and the countless others that pay developers good money to write Open source software. None of them are doing it out of the good in their hearts. They are doing it because it gives them a competitive advantage, good publicity, or the chance to shoot at a rival over the shoulders of 'Open source' developers.

(Been unable to write anything on the Mumbai attacks yet. Still trying to formulate a sensible post.)

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