Tuesday May 27, 2008

Ghost Writer

Seriously, is there a worse technology journalist than Sam Varghese? His column Open Sauce - A GNU Perspective (geddit?) is a train-wreck. He's very poorly informed, self-important (he considers that if he gives a product a poor review, it's "a major PR disaster"), but what's even worse: he simply can't write.

This is the open-minded individual who insists on writing "(sic)" when quoting americanised direct speech. This is the wordsmith who crafts nonsense like Bruce Perens made what would be a move with huge repercussions, and the brainless Stormy by name, not by nature (on Stormy Peters of OpenLogic). I could go on. And indeed, I have.

Anyway, I'm revisiting Mr Varghese's column after reading his review of OpenSolaris. I will admit that I was waiting for this one, fully expecting it to be littered with factual errors and what we might kindly describe as failures of intellectual curiosity. And I wasn't disappointed. His opening salvo:

One still has to go through a requester/sponsor arrangement to submit a patch to the OpenSolaris project. (By contrast, the Ubuntu Linux distribution started by Canonical is now a little more than three-and-a-half years old - and there is no need to detail what it has achieved).

We all admire Ubuntu, and no one is going to deny it has done a fantastic job in both gaining admirers within the Linux community and, crucially, growing the popularity of Linux with people who might otherwise have not used it. But still, (and ignoring the massive differences in starting points for these projects) the truth of Mr Varghese's statement really depends on who you are. There are, after all, non-Sun committers to OpenSolaris. Sure, we want more, but I challenge Mr Varghese to put back a patch to Ubuntu without a sponsor. One will always have to go through a request/sponsor arrangement unless one has committer status.

Mr Varghese then demonstrates his ability to work the Google machine, regurgitating criticism of OpenSolaris (much legitimate - we're not claiming perfection here) from IBM employees, and then his inability to RTFM by complaining that he can't find OpenOffice.org. But then he unleashes his final barb,

But the licence is what jars the most. It pops up in all its glorious detail right at the start of proceedings, the Community Development and Distribution Licence. It isn't compatible with the General Public Licence, an indicator, again, that Sun is still in two minds - should we (really) give it away or should we still continue to be control freaks?

Like many people, I have a lot of respect for the GPL, but let's be clear: only the GPL is compatible with the GPL. And the CDDL is an open source license by any - any - reasonable definition, and certainly the one to which Mr Varghese appears to subscribe. Does he even read his own column? So when he writes:

There are two Sun components that would be of interest to Linux developers if they were licensed under terms that made them portable - the ZFS filesystem and DTrace. But by the time Sun decides on whether it will open source these two, it may be time for me to bid goodbye to this world.

Let's hope not, as that would date Mr Varghese's demise as January or December 2005. Happily, DTrace and ZFS are both now available on Solaris, Mac OS X and BSD - DTrace is even available on QNX. But should Mr Varghese read this (although the evidence is that he reads very little, at least, until he has decided what his opinion is), "open source" does not equate to GPL compatibility. If it did, why would we even have the Open Source Definition? We would just have the GPL.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Monday May 26, 2008

The Inadvertently Interesting Matt Asay

I've just been enjoying the vociferous complaints on the Register's semi-informed podcast Open Season by celebrity blogger Matt Asay about his "innocuous suggestion" (read: simplistic and ill-advised comment) that non-paying users are detrimental to open source. You can read it here, but before you click, you might want to consider the author's own opinion of his writing ("I almost fell asleep typing it, it's so bland.").

Mr Asay shifts his ground between the first piece and the follow up, here. But essentially, he says this: "free riders" (which he holds to be non-paying, non-coding users of open source software) are a problem for commercial open source companies because they may encourage other paying users not to pay. Or, as Mr Asay puts it, "Why should you be the only sucker paying for what everyone else is using for free, and quite comfortably?".

Now, it seems plausible that there is a situation for which Mr Asay's proposition makes sense: perhaps even his own business. But it's worth bearing in mind that if your customer does not know what they are paying you for, perhaps they are, indeed, a "sucker". Perhaps you have sold them something they don't need. Surely a better strategy is to have paying customers who know and value what they're paying for: be it support, indemnity, warranty, training, etc. There is seldom a free-rider problem with products that have a cost per marginal unit produced.

As for Mr Asay's shrill complaints, he hints that it is destructive behaviour and counter to the interests of open source to disagree with him. Well, maybe. But, open source, even "commercial open source" is a broad church of motivation and business models, and it's very hard to speak for everything in the domain (never mind non-commercial open source). Much less if you're falling asleep while writing.

So, for one thing, the term 'free riders' is a pejorative one to my ears, and implies over-consumption and/or problems in production (and frequently implies that a public good ought to be communally produced). While I doubt that Mr Asay meant to be rude about people who use open source software without paying for it, by using a term which has come from a very precise vocabulary (even if it is more commonly used these days), it might seem as if he did.

Further, Mr Asay's comments are only applicable to projects which monetize directly. Mozilla Firefox does not charge for usage, nor does it exist on donations (although I am sure they are welcome). He appears to miss many elements of the bigger picture: that a large and growing market share leads to its own opportunities. And by regarding "contribution" only in terms of money or code (which he later expands to other activities), Mr Asay misses the point that a large user base makes it easier to grow a user base, by making your software both more accessible, and more attractive to others to develop. He seems to think that non-paying/coding users only offer the benefits that a) they are at least not paying your competitor and b) they provide an "emotional safety net who want to buy with the herd". Charming.

Free access to software can drive growth. It can allow businesses to add capabilities which they would not otherwise have explored. In other words, they wouldn't have paid money to anyone. What's more, rather than having an emotional value, a large "non-contributing" user base can have a genuine economic value.

Mr Asay claims that his argument was entirely uncontroversial, restating it to, "we need to find ways to get more code or cash from communities". Given the rampant success of open source, it's dubious that it needs to do much differently, but all the same, we know what he means. I'd prefer to restate it this way: to build a business in open source, usage of the software must translate into some economic benefit for the producer.

If indeed, Mr Asay had made this highly intuitive point, his indignation at people disagreeing with him would be understandable. But by his own admission, he was sloppy in making this point, and didn't really make any others. And so, those who hold that increasing the benefit for a producer of software does not in all cases mean having a higher proportion of users to pay for access to that software could only disagree with him.

Cheer up Matt, at least they read your blog.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Friday May 18, 2007


It is with regret that I read Sam Varghese's critical report of Sun this week, Solaris can never be Linux.  This wasn't just any old nonsense from a blogger posing as a jornalist after all, but the man, the Varg.  Is there a better writer out there?

An elegant wordsmith,
The latest bit of spiel which juxtaposes these words,

but always to the point,
If anything, trying to morph one in order to make it like the other will result in something that is neither fish nor fowl. And we all know what happens when things turn out that way.

with a fabulous command of literary references,
Statistics are often the refuge of scoundrels

and quick to forgive the failings of others,
To put it in his own words:"This paper emphasizes [sic] quantitative measures"

while maintaining his own high standards,
There is no hyberbole, no escessive putdown.

and, as always, in consummate good taste.
Microsoft: shades of Saddam Hussein.

So, when I read that whenever Mr Vaghese hears "the words Sun Microsystems and open source mentioned together [he] can't help but laugh", well, naturally, I'm concerned.  And Mr Vaghese deals out a proper savaging with his irresistable combination of astute observation,

Sun keeps talking about its dedication to the open source ideal and holding on to its code.

quality prose,
Last year, Sun was literally dragged kicking and screaming to the table to release Java under the GPL.

razor-sharp reason,
For years there have been calls to do this but Sun resisted. The act was finally done but who is interested any more?

And industry-insider prescience,
It isn't going to happen. Solaris isn't Linux and will never be anything like it.

No, few survive a mauling from the pen of Mr. Sam Vaghese and laugh it off.

ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer




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