by Christopher Lindquist

No Common Ground

Feb 04, 20053 mins

There’s a race being run right now—a race to determine the fate of software. And CIOs need to take part.

To oversimplify dramatically, we’re speeding toward a world that either supports open source software or kills it. If the anti-open source (AOS) side has its way, there will not be any open source software, period. Any attempt to develop and freely distribute any product as open source—should it gain enough marketshare to hit the AOS radar—will be immediately crushed under the weight of patent infringement and other intellectual property lawsuits.

If you think there’s room for compromise, you’re wrong. This is a religious issue: either you believe that open source is an acceptable model for creating and distributing software, or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s likely that you currently run a software company that makes money the old fashioned way—you license your software for it. You can’t have someone like Bill Gates talking about open source advocacy and communism in the same breath and not see that we’re rapidly going to be at philosophical loggerheads.

Gates later “clarified” his comments, but he’s smart enough to know that using a loaded term like communism anywhere near open source is going to generate some heat. He’s also smart enough to be lobbying hard for stronger software patent protections while the anti-Bill, Linus Torvalds, pushes for more leniency.

The issues involved are massively complex, which unfortunately means that ham-handed governments are unlikely to deal with them with any subtlety. Odds are, we’ll see rulings and laws in the near future that strongly favor one side or the other, and given that that AOS folks are the ones with the money and political clout right now, we can guess which way the axe will fall. While the programmer-in-the-street may see things through ideological eyes, governments generally respond better to economic arguments.

This is where CIOs come in. If Bill Gates wants to call some senators and talk about how open source undermines incentive and hurts America, someone will be there to pick up the phone. Linus Torvalds’ voicemail message isn’t likely to get the same consideration. But a big manufacturing company—say a large military equipment vendor—calling that same senator and talking about how open source is saving millions of dollars and thousands of US jobs just might trump Mr. Bill.

Not everybody can be a military supplier with a hotline to Congress, of course. But if you run a lot of open source products, and the thought of being told that you need to go back to commercial software gives you that queasy feeling, maybe it’s time to give your senator or representative a call, just to let them know how you feel. At some point those folks are going to cast a vote. And if they’ve only heard one side of the story, you may not like what happens after the tally.