An idiot's view of open source

If he wasn't so utterly wrong and, it appears that he's taken seriously, Andrew Keen's delusion that the economy is about to "Give Open-Source a Good Thumping" would be funny.

Keen, author of the book, Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture, argues that "One of the very few positive consequences of the current financial miasma will be a sharp cultural shift in our attitude toward the economic value of our labor. Mass unemployment and a deep economic recession comprise the most effective antidote to the Utopian ideals of open-source radicals."

Therefore, "Historians will look back at the open-source mania between 2000 and 2008 with a mixture of incredulity and amusement. How could tens of thousands of people have donated their knowledge to Wikipedia or the blogosphere for free? What was it about the Internet that made so many of us irrational about our economic value?"

The problem with his argument is simple: it's a straw-man argument. There are almost no open-source radicals, and of those, few, if any, are working for free.

Anyone who really follows open-source development knows that the vast majority of it is written by paid developers. As I pointed out recently, open-source's most popular project, Linux, is written by corporate America.

In the 2.6.24 Linux kernel, for example, we know that, at least, 74.2% of it was written by paid developers. We can even break it down further so we know the top ten corporate Linux backers were, in order: Red Hat, 11.2%; Novell, 8.9%; IBM, 8.3%; Intel, 4.1%; Linux Foundation, 2.6%; independent Linux consultants, 2.5%; SGI, 2.0% MIPS Technology, 1.6%; Oracle, 1.3% and MontaVista, 1.2%, with Google coming on fast to the top 10 with 1.1%.

These companies' programmers aren't working for free, and their stockholders sure the heck expects to see a healthy profit. Now, there is an ideal here. I'm not sure I'd call it Utopian though. I'd called it utterly pragmatic and practical. The basic idea of open source and its somewhat more radical forefather 'free software,' is that it's better to share information than to keep it locked up in proprietary software.

Or, to put in terms that perhaps more people will get, instead of trying to hog as much of a small pie as possible, the proprietary approach, open-source developers believe its better to make a bigger, better pie so everyone's slice will be larger. This isn't some pie-in-the-sky idea. It works.

The Linux Foundation just released a study that showed that the Fedora 9 Linux distribution would have cost, in terms of conventional development costs, just over 11.75-billion dollars. The combined market-cap, in this fiasco of a stock market, of the top companies working on Linux was just over 400-billion dollars this morning. This sure doesn't sound like Keen's hungry and cold unemployed masses giving away "their intellectual labor on the Internet in the speculative hope that they might get some 'back end' revenue" to me. Microsoft's market-cap, by the way, was 198-billion.

Linux isn't some kind of special case. Mozilla Corp., the company behind Firefox, has net revenue of over $60-million per year. Most of that comes from its advertising partnership with Google. OpenOffice is tied to Sun and IBM. The companies are investing in open source because it's good business, not because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Individuals may work for open-source projects because it makes them feel good, but it also keeps a roof over their head.

Now, there are open-source idealists. Take, for example, my friend and top Samba developer, Jeremy Allison. Allison quit Novell because he objected to Novell's parent partnership with Microsoft. Idealistic? Yes. Foolish idealistic? No. A few weeks later Allison was working for Google.

The point, if one bothers to look, is as plain as the nose on your face. Open source isn't just some dumb idea. It's a perfectly sensible way of developing software and making money. If you think otherwise, well, sorry, but you haven't bothered to really think or look at 21st century business realities.

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