The Tipping Point: Opening the Fudgates

We all have a tipping point. It is just that some people reach it sooner than others.

The Linux market is growing at 26% per annum, and we all know that more and more people are using tools like Open Office (32 million downloads), Thunderbird, and Firefox, and more and more people are using open standards like HTML and XML. But is there a tipping point at which people will suddenly move en masse to abandon outdated proprietary software and proprietary standards? Is there a point at which some hidden scale will swing in a new direction and users will begin choosing open source and open standards over proprietary software? Will there be a great grinding of wheels and squeaking of cogs as the world of software development seesaws away from proprietary solutions and toward freedom?

Right now, the major thing holding back open solutions are heavily sponsored outpourings of FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The irony, of course, is that the fudgates have been opened by people who are themselves fearful, uncertain, and doubtful.

The Freedom to Choose

Most people understand that open source and open standards provide users with freedoms that they can’t get from proprietary software. For instance, we like the following freedoms:

  • The freedom to choose a platform. If we choose a particular tool, computer language, or document format does it lock us into one platform? If we choose a proprietary solution then it probably does lock us into a platform, but if we choose open standards, then we usually get to choose our platform.
  • The freedom to choose a tool. Can we take our documents and use them with another tool if we don’t like the tool we are currently using? For compilers, this means writing to a standard like Java, C, Python, Perl, or C++, all of which work with multiple products from multiple companies. For word processing, this means using a standard such as HTML that can be read or edited with multiple editors.
  • The freedom to fix bugs, add features, or change features. In other words, did it come with source, and can we compile it? With open source, we always get the source and can recompile at will; with proprietary solutions, we usually don’t get the source and have to wait months or years for fixes.
  • The freedom to ship a product when the users need a new version. Who dictates product cycles? The manufacturer or the user? Are releases all about maximizing profits, or are they about meeting the needs of users? This involves both the freedom to ship small incremental bug fix releases, and the freedom to hold off releases when a product is not ready to ship. If a product is released as open source, then you can make a new build whenever you want and often there is no penalty for the developers in waiting until the product is ready.
  • The freedom to understand. We want to understand a product, to see how it was designed and therefore how best to use it. But often we can’t understand how a product works because there is no source code, and the documentation is bad. This is particularly irksome when working with developer API’s and runtimes that don’t ship with source. Proprietary solutions are usually closed solutions that ship without source.

As a developer, you know you are using an open solution if you are free to pick your development platform. If a team is working on a project, and each member of the team is free to work in either Linux or Windows, then the solution is open. The air is fresh. Users are free. But if one must work exclusively on either Windows or Linux then the solution is not open, the doors are locked, the air is fetid and close.

The Ties that Bind

Everyone can see the value in open source and open standards, open solutions are preferableto getting locked into a proprietary solution that benefits only the owners of a standard. If all this is so obvious, then why does anyone ever choose proprietary software? Why didn’t we reach the tipping point and choose freedom years ago? The answer, of course, is two fold. People choose proprietary solutions when:

  1. they are locked into them.
  2. the proprietary solution is significantly better than any open solution.

Everyone understands point one. We all know what it is like to be trapped inside a proprietary standard. You want to work on a particular platform but you can’t because you are locked down. You want to use a particular compiler or a particular editor, but you are locked into a proprietary standard. You want to fix a bug or add a feature, but you can’t because you don’t have the source. You want to understand how something works, but you can’t because you don’t have the source.

The Tipping Point

Despite the feel of its onerous and cloying fingers on their flesh, only hard core individualists will drop a proprietary solution in favor of an open solution just because of lock-in. Especially in the business world, people tend to be too pragmatic to choose freedom just for the sake of freedom. But if an open solution is as good as a proprietary solution, and especially if the open solution is free, then many will choose the open standard over the proprietary solution.

In the final analysis, the tipping point will be reached when a significant majority of open solutions compete with proprietary solutions in terms of quality. The question, of course, is just how far we are from that day. Has it possibly arrived already? Is it just around the corner?

Already Open Office is competitive with the big proprietary office suites. And Firefox and Mozilla are more than a match for proprietary browsers. Linux is a better server than any proprietary solution except possibly some of the biggest UNIX servers. Linux is frequently the best development platform, especially for multi-tier or network based applications. Even the beleaguered Linux desktop is fast becoming competitive with even the best in that field, such as the beautifully designed Mac desktop.

Linux still lags behind the Mac in terms of Multimedia, but the emerging NVU web authoring system is showing signs of potentially giving Dreamweaver a run for the money. For many people, Dreamweaver is the last tool binding them to proprietary software. But if NVU reaches maturity, then even Dreamweaver the last great freely chosenbastion of proprietary software, will at last topple. (Since Dreamweaver works with open standards, I don’t really care that it doesn’t ship with source, what bothers me is that it doesn’t run on Linux.)

What will happen on the day day when you boot up a Linux box and suddenly realize that it has solutions that are equal or superior to proprietary solutions in all the major application areas? Will that be enough to tip the scales and cause a rush to open solutions? For many people, such as myself, that day has already arrived. For others, the day is coming soon. But there are those who don’t want to see that day dawn. They will do anything to stop it.

The Fudgates Unleashed

Defenders of lock-in love to open the fudgates and let rumor and innuendo flow. They claim that people who like open solutions are:

  • Trying to ban the sale of proprietary software.
  • Are attacking the free market system.
  • Are, and here is the very pinnacle of irony, trying to limit your freedom to choose.

But of course truly open solutions do none of these things. They have only one purpose: to give you the freedom to choose.

If you are working on a project with a team, and you have to boot up a particular OS to get any work done, then you are locked down. You are pinned to the wall and the person who has you pinned is leisurely tossing darts in your direction to pass the time from inside his home built on stilts above the fetid swamps downstream of the open fudgates.
If, on the contrary, you can work on the project in either Windows or Linux, then the solution is open.

Rather than trying to prevent you from using any particular platform, supporters of open solutions want you to have the right to choose. If you want to choose Linux, then fine. You are working with an open solution. Go ahead and do what you want. And if you want to use Windows, that’s fine too, you have that right also. This is freedom. Any solution that locks you into either the Linux or the Windows platform is just an elaborate con job dressed up as technology.

Clearly open solutions aren’t about banning anything. Rather than attacking the free market system, they just make it more flexible, more free. Open Solutions aren’t about limiting freedom, they are about giving you more freedom.

The moment you hear someone talking about how free software is more expensive than consumer based software then you know the fudgates are open. When they start talking about how proponents of open solutions are trying to limit freedom, then you can feel the ground under your feet tremble because the sludge is pouring through the floodgates at such high volume as to shake the very foundations of the earth. That’s when you know the FUD has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting public and everyone is about to take a very smelly bath.

Summary

If you are quiet, and sit very still, you can feel the fresh air against your skin. Change is in the air. Not tomorrow, but soon. If we as developers and computer users can still select our own destiny, then the only real questions left are whether:

  • Open solutions will be released primarily as free software, thus ending the age when people pay money for software.
  • The big software firms will at last convert entirely to open source and open standards. As a result, they will belatedly allow paying customers the freedom to choose not a hobbled proprietary product, but a cross-platform and multi-tool standard.
  • Lawmakers will, at the last possible moment, awake from their self induced slumber and break up the big proprietary behemoths, thus allowing free competition.

The people who are creating open solutions don’t care which path is chosen. They are working only to ensure that open solutions arrive come FUD or high water. But still I wonder: will something be done to bring fairness back into the paying software market so that free market firms offering open solutions can compete against the giant proprietary behemoths who tramp the earth like aging dinosaurs looking for a fight on Skull Island?