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Weekly Column

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: If You Think Microsoft Can’t Undermine Open Source, You Are Wrong

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Some readers recalled this week that it has been a year since I wrote about the death of my son Chase, who was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) at age 74 days. They asked for an update and truthfully, I can’t point to much progress in my fight against SIDS. In large part this comes from one fact I left out of that column from a year ago, which is that Chase had a twin brother, Channing, and we had our hands full for many months keeping him from following his brother. In fact, Channing, who is now 14 months old, only gave up his heart monitor for good a month ago.

For those who wonder what killed Chase, it was most likely acid reflux. Yes, the baby was killed by heartburn, which in preemies can lead to heart and respiratory failure. That night, as he sat on my lap, I could tell his breathing was labored, but didn’t know he was dying. To me, it seemed like just a little cold. I will never think of a cold the same way again. Every night — and I mean EVERY NIGHT — I lie in bed wondering what I could have done to save Chase. Why didn’t I do something about that breathing? Should I have been firmer with his doctors (we’d asked for a heart monitor and been discouraged because they generate so many false alarms)? I’d tolerate a thousand alarms to have Chase back, and indeed, did exactly that with Channing, whose heart rate dropped as low as 13 beats per minute in January. People tell me there is nothing I could have done to save him, but I know that is wrong just as I know those people weren’t there and can never understand.

Fortunately, we have Channing, who today weighs 24 lbs and threatens to start walking, talking, and attempting to drive the car simultaneously any day now. He is a great kid, and a year and $200,000 after the loss of his brother, we are finally confident he’ll be around for awhile.

A year ago, I had a grand plan to conquer SIDS through organized avoidance, an idea that continues to slouch forward thanks to friends in Australia, Canada, Israel, and Japan who are doing the heavy lifting. But we are still at least a year from having a prototype to test. In the meantime, SIDS gets less and less attention from the medical community because there has been so little recent progress in defeating it. We cut the death rate from 2.5 per 1,000 births to just over one per 1,000 births simply by removing blankets and having babies sleep on their backs, but that was years ago, and there has been hardly any progress since. This frustrates the doctors who have no new studies to publish, no new theories to propound, so they move on to something else. SIDS research is no longer considered "productive." My idea of not curing SIDS but avoiding it is considered a philosophical kludge and therefore unworthy. That’s funny, I thought the idea was to save lives, but I guess not.

Some people simply assume that SIDS is no longer a problem. The American SIDS Institute, which I have been trying to help, was turned down not long ago when they asked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a $60,000 research grant. The letter from foundation director Patty Stonesifer didn’t fault the science or the qualifications of the researchers, but noted that such research would be of little benefit to the Third World, where the Gates Foundation is apparently devoting most of its health funding. Too bad they didn’t check their numbers because SIDS death rates in the Third World are SIX TIMES that of the U.S. I pointed this out in a letter to Ms. Stonesifer, but she didn’t bother to reply. Bring that point up, please, if you see her.

This is all very frustrating for me and reminds me how hard it is to make scientific progress on a volunteer basis, which brings me to the real topic of this week’s column — Open Source software. Is it really a viable concept? This week and next we’ll try to figure that out, but we’ll start with the idea that Open Source actually isn’t viable. I’m not convinced of that, but it is as good a place as any to start.

Here is the core argument: There are a thousand Open Source projects that get started out of need or fun, are maintained for awhile for fame, then get abandoned because there is no reason to go on. Eventually, the programmers come to understand that "users" are people who yell at you to fix stuff. So Open Source is inherently flawed. It only works because otherwise unknown programmers can get 15 minutes of fame using the Internet as low-barrier entry into introducing their skill to the world. Since they are introverted nobodies, getting a few emails from unknown users that say "good job!" feels great. But in time, most Open Source projects grind to a halt. The ones that survive are projects like Linux and Apache that have substantial involvement by PAID engineers. One could argue, in fact, that the idea of Open Source software being created by volunteers is a misnomer. Even Linus Torvalds is paid by Transmeta to be the God of Linux.

Open Source has value or people wouldn't still be doing it after 10 plus years. At the same time, complexity breeds inefficiency. Whatever approach you take to the organization of product development some form of the 80/20 rule applies — 80 percent of the available material is useless to you. We can easily just dismiss the creaking parts of Open Source by bunching them in the 80 percent we ignore.

But ignoring them does not make those parts go away, and here is where we’ll find Open Source’s vulnerability. There is this idea (I’ve written it myself) that Microsoft, for example, can’t compete with Open Source because you can’t compete with a product that has no profit Motive, and can’t out-market a product that has no marketing budget or plan. But Microsoft could still beat Open Source simply by subverting it.

It is possible to hijack an Open Source project since any Open Source team will automatically bend itself around the party doing the most work. What I find most interesting, however, is applying varying motives to the hijacking. What if Microsoft, for example, suddenly started devoting a lot of resources to Open Source development? They could throw a team at all the key projects. But why would they do that? Well, IBM is already doing it. IBM has hired most of the Apache team. IBM has some major pull on what work gets done and does not get done. In some cases, it is frustrating, and other cases not. However, everybody just accepts it because IBM is paying the bills and people can do what they love. Is there an official IBM party line at Apache? Absolutely not! It is just that none of the Apache developers will talk negatively about IBM, even those that do not work at IBM. So in this sense, it already appears that Apache has been hijacked.

Now consider an evil alternative. Say Microsoft assigns a team of programmers to help some Open Source project. Maybe this time that team isn't specifically identified as being from Microsoft, perhaps it is a Microsoft-funded startup. This team, because of its vitality and funding, quickly takes control of the project and goes running off in some particular technical direction, taking with it the rest of the suddenly re-energized team. But what if this new direction is not a good one? Even worse, what if the team gets far down that lonely road only to have Microsoft suddenly pull the plug, removing its team from the game? Would the project survive? It is hard to say, but if I was Microsoft that's how I would compete with Open Source, by subverting it. Microsoft can't compete on quality or price. And subversion — since it is subverting a not-for-profit venture — breaks no laws, nasty as it is.

So Open Source is not especially altruistic, just ego-driven. It can be hijacked and it can be subverted. And a concerted effort at subversion taking advantage of developer fatigue could be devastating. This hardly seems a movement, then, that can be relied on, yet millions do.

Next week, I’ll argue in the other direction, but right now, it simply doesn’t look to me like Open Source has long-term viability.

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