More Fun with Anti-Open Source FUD

One of the oddest aspects of open source is that unlike any comparable computing field that I am aware of, it has been stalked for years by a strange, insubstantial beast going by the name of FUD. Back in 2006, I wrote a short history of the topic, but in the five years since then we've seen plenty more.

I wrote about one example back in January. And just this week we've been privileged to see this rather amusing piece of FUD concerning the Cabinet Office note defining open standards that I discussed on Monday:

"BSA strongly supports open standards as a driver of interoperability; but we are deeply concerned that by seeking to define openness in a way which requires industry to give up its intellectual property, the UK government's new policy will inadvertently reduce choice, hinder innovation and increase the costs of e-government," said the lobbying group, which represents many proprietary software groups.

As FUD goes, I'd say that was pretty pathetic, since the idea that truly open standards will "reduce choice, hinder innovation and increase the costs of e-government" is nonsense: that list is precisely the opposite of what open standards have already produced in various sectors (just think of the Internet and Web.)

But I came across a slightly older example of anti-open source FUD that is rather more interesting, because it throws a complete curveball that has at least the merit of originality. Here's the central argument:

the existence of CSS code increases OSS output and vice versa. To see why, consider an all-OSS world in which each company offers consumers exactly the same shared code as every other company. By definition no company can then compete by writing more OSS code than its rivals. This lack of competition suppresses code production for the same reason that cartels suppress output.

Wow, for a moment there, I thought the authors were suggesting that open source creates a cartel – oh, but wait:

We have already pointed out that OSS operates as a de facto cartel. This will normally make OSS firms more profitable than an equivalent number of CSS firms. As a result, we expect most markets to host far more OSS firms than policymakers would like.

"Open source operates as a de facto cartel" - now that really is a splendid bit of FUD that deserves closer examination.

This extraordinary conclusion seems to flow from the earlier flawed analysis of what happens when there are open source companies operating in a market. In fact, there are several quite different flaws there.

The first is "consider an all-OSS world in which each company offers consumers exactly the same shared code as every other company": but that's not how open source markets operate. Typically, there are many different code bases for a given sector: GNU/Linux and the BSDs for operating systems; Firefox, Chromium and Konqueror for browsers; Thunderbird and Evolution for email etc. This means that it's actually extremely easy for new companies using open source to enter those sectors.

Indeed, the rapid rise of Google's Chrome/Chromium is a neat counter-example to the erroneous statement above. It entered the browser sector and proceeded to do rather well, probably halting the growth of Firefox as well as taking away market share from Internet Explorer. Yes, that market did not consist entirely of open source browsers, but given its success against Firefox, it seems clear that it could have entered just such a market and flourished because of its evident merits.

But for the sake of argument, let us accept the possibility that there are markets where all the companies based on open source use the same code base. The argument is then "no company can then compete by writing more OSS code than its rivals" with the result that "this lack of competition suppresses code production."

Leaving aside the fact that hackers code for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with competition, using the metric of how much open source code misses the point: by definition it's generally 100% - that was the premise. And it's not how much that counts, it's how good that matters. And this is where the differentiation comes in.

Since the code base is open, companies can – and do – start tweaking it to make it "better" - where the metric for that improvement will vary from company to company. For some it might be speed, for others security, for yet more it might be a small footprint and so on.

These different versions then compete in the market and Darwinian selection allows "better" versions to survive and thrive. That's shown most clearly in the world of GNU/Linux distros, which do indeed start from the same main code base, but then split off in hundreds of different ways – this incredible diversity is part of the huge strength of the open source ecosystem.

So the idea that a "cartel" is created is disproved by the facts of the free software world. It is actually much easier to enter markets where there are already open source products – for example, you can just take the code and fork it if you wish (although note that if a company holds all the copyright to the code it may have certain commercial advantages.)

In any case, since open source programs nearly always use open standards – unlike many proprietary products – it is much easier to create new codebases that support those standards than it would be if proprietary standards dominate. Again, this means that is generally easier to enter a market where open source and open standards are already present compared to markets where proprietary software sets the (closed) standard.

To summarise, one of the key advantages of encouraging the growth of open source in a particular sector is to undermine existing proprietary cartels by supporting open standards and thus opening up that market to new entrants. Governments rightly concerned about such cartels should be supporting open source wholeheartedly as one of the best and most efficient ways of countering them – not seeking some mythical and counterproductive "balance" with closed source and its deleterious consequences.

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