Winning the Open Source War

If you’re trying to save money on site operations, one of the most-discussed alternatives you have is using open-source software.

Thousands of commercial sites use the Apache (it has nothing to do with Indians; it means “a-patchy” as in patched together) Web server, which is distributed through open source. Linux is a wildly popular open-source operating system.

But Microsoft has recently gone on the offensive against Linux and open source generally. A white paper issued last week from Senior Vice President Craig Mundie laid out its case.

Microsoft charges that open-source software is insecure, that releasing software into the public domain is unhealthy, that it destroys intellectual property, and that it can’t build a mass market or deliver powerful, easy-to-use computers to that market.

But if you look at Microsoft’s words closely (and that’s the only way to look at them, really), you find they’re not attacking all open source. They’re not directly attacking IBM, which has invested $1 billion in Linux development.

What Microsoft is mainly attacking is something called the GNU General Public License. Richard Stallman is given credit for authoring the GNU, which is defined here.

Linux, as defined by creator Linus Torvalds, was first distributed under the GNU. While it’s copyrighted, it’s also distributed without a warranty — if there’s a bug in your copy, it is your bug.

But there are other models for open source besides GNU. FreeBSD, for instance, is distributed under what’s called the “Berkeley license,” one that is less restricted on copyright protection than the GNU and (according to its advocates), thus, more tightly controlled and bug-free.

Unfortunately, these subtleties, while important to you and your business, are being lost in the media frenzy. It’s much more fun to write headlines about Gates trying to make Windows the law of the land and rush to Linus Torvalds for quotes after each Microsoft broadside is launched.

Torvalds himself contributes to the confusion by being eminently quotable, not to mention bright and likable — the kind of man we imagine Bill Gates himself would have grown to become if he hadn’t made all that money. For instance, Torvalds called the argument in Mundie’s latest speech “so much crap.” (What reporter can resist?)

Besides, there’s a political point to be made. Torvalds sees himself as upholding “open science,” the free exchange of information on which basic research depends. Microsoft sees itself as upholding the capitalist idea, the hope of making money from an invention (rather than giving everything away).

When technology is turned into product, someone takes responsibility for it, and someone also takes control of it. At what point should that happen with software? Torvalds argues that communities are stronger than any one company can be. Microsoft argues that without the promise of wealth, there’s no point to pushing technology ahead.

There is a middle ground here, ground that’s being overlooked amid the hullabaloo. Your job as a manager, however, is to find that ground, to stand on it, and to get the best from both sides. That’s how your company can win the open-source war.

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