Jaron Lanier’s “Long Live Closed-Source Software!”

by on January 3, 2008 · 5 comments

I found Jaron Lanier’s provocatively titled Discover magazine essay “Long Live Closed-Source Software!” quite interesting, and I’m surprised others here (especially Tim) haven’t commented on it yet. Taking a look at the development of open source software over the past 25 years, Lanier concludes that:

Open wisdom-of-crowds software movements have become influential, but they haven’t promoted the kind of radical creativity I love most in computer science. If anything, they’ve been hindrances. Some of the youngest, brightest minds have been trapped in a 1970s intellectual framework because they are hypnotized into accepting old software designs as if they were facts of nature. Linux is a superbly polished copy of an antique, shinier than the original, perhaps, but still defined by it.

Before you write me that angry e-mail, please know I’m not anti–open source. I frequently argue for it in various specific projects. But a politically correct dogma holds that open source is automatically the best path to creativity and innovation, and that claim is not borne out by the facts.

The problem, Lanier argues, is that…

The open-source software community is simply too turbulent to focus its tests and maintain its criteria over an extended duration, and that is a prerequisite to evolving highly original things. There is only one iPhone, but there are hundreds of Linux releases. A closed-software team is a human construction that can tie down enough variables so that software becomes just a little more like a hardware chip—and note that chips, the most encapsulated objects made by humans, get better and better following an exponential pattern of improvement known as Moore’s law.

I think Lanier makes some interesting points but he goes a bit too far here. I do agree with him that the success of many closed-source projects, like the iPhone, must tell us something. Seriously, where are all the open source cell phones and video games?

But it would be wrong to make sweeping conclusions based on such arguments. There are countless examples of amazing open-source applications on the market. Just this morning I was reading another review of this amazing little notebook PC that Asus has released called the EeePC, which benefits from a streamlined Linux OS that any user can manipulate. I don’t necessarily agree with enigma_foundry that the little machine represents “the tipping point” in the battle between propriety and open-source PCs, but it is another exciting example of the sort of innovation taking place today.

And this gets to why I’ve always been an agnostic with regards to the heated war of words between the open source and proprietary source crowds. I think we benefit from intense, ongoing heated competition between open and closed systems. I’ve never understood the sort of “all-or-nothing” / “us-vs-them” mentality espoused by some characters on either side of this debate. It’s a senseless techno-philosophical holy war if you ask me. I know it sounds sappy, but why can’t we all just get along? Society benefits from the existence of both production methods, indeed it always has, even in the old Analog Economy days.

So, I agree with Lanier when he says “long live closed-source software,” but I say long live open-source software, too! Contrary to what he argues, I think it has promoted a lot of “radical creativity” in computer science. But I agree with him that sometimes adherents to the open source creed are a bit “hypnotized” by “a politically correct dogma holds that open source is automatically the best path to creativity and innovation.” Both paths–open and closed–can lead to wonderful results. Let the experiment continue.

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