Re and Expanding on Jaron Lanier on Closed Source Software

by on January 3, 2008 · 16 comments

(This is in response to a thoughtful post by Adam, who beat me to the punch, and to a controversial recent article (“Long Live Closed-Source Software!“) by the free-thinking Jaron Lanier that Adam discusses.)

No one needs to say “Long live open-source software,” because it is what it is and isn’t going anywhere. Think of it as the ground beneath our feet.

As Lanier explains, closed source is the font of nearly all paradigmatic innovation–the great revolutionary leaps. Open source contributes iterative innovation, such as the best kernel scheduler for variable workloads–this is a problem it is possible to work out slowly, with small changes over a period of years. It is also a problem that doesn’t matter at all to most users–good enough is good enough, though better is, of course, better.

Where the two forms of development come together most interestingly is the use of open source as a stepping stone for closed-source radical innovation. Asus, for example, didn’t have to step forward and create its own OS from the ground up for its EeePC. Even though the thing sports an interface unlike those in most Linux distributions, the underlying guts are the same. Would something like the EeePC even be possible without open source? Could a manufacturer afford to undertake the great expense, and gamble, of working out an OS for itself? Free software lets businesses take chances on projects that would otherwise be too expensive to devise and products that would otherwise be too expensive to market.

Apple’s OS X is another example, built on the same core (well, nearly) as the open-source FreeBSD OS. Running FreeBSD and OS X are completely different experiences, but again, the guts are the same. And if Apple (or NeXT before it) had had to develop the whole system itself, it probably never would have been built–at least, not in anything like the form we see it today. (Would some of us be running, god help us, Copland?)

My point, which I think jibes with Lanier’s, is that open source establishes a technological baseline that facilitates innovation in more interesting areas. Very few of those innovations, though, are actually done in open source, at least not until they’ve been created in the closed-source world first.

(Even web browsers are an example of this. Today’s Firefox would be instantly recognizable to, and usable by, someone familiar only with Netscape Navigator 3. Most of the changes have been iterative and under the hood. The biggest changes in the browser experience in recent years have been Flash and XMLHttpRequest, both borne of closed-source development, but it was the web’s open standards that made Flash and AJAX possible.)

For those of us who haven’t taken sides in what Adam astutely calls a “senseless techno-philosophical holy war” but instead recognize that both forms of development have their own advantages, it is important that each side have the flexibility to do what it does best. I wonder, then, what Lanier think of the “viral” GPL, which no doubt inhibits or slows some software revolutions that could be built atop software that is open source but covered by the GPL but are not because of the redistribution requirement. On the other hand, there is great value to iterative development from requiring that most changes to source code be distributed freely. Projects like FreeBSD (free source code, but no requirement that changes be shared), however, suggest that requiring changes to be made public may not always be necessary in iterative development.

In a dispassionate discussion (not debate), it might be a good resolution to conclude that sharing is a community norm and radical innovation an economic, market good–few business probably expect to make bundles off products that are only slightly better than everyone else’s. It’s an empirical question as to whether that would favor more flexible licenses, like the BSD and MIT licenses (which permit code to be used in closed-source development), but I think it’s likely.

Sadly, there is too often nothing but passion and absolutist rhetoric in the debates over (of all things!) source code licenses.

That’s why Lanier’s column is so welcome. With his background, credentials, and (yes) the dreadlocks, Lanier can command the attention of all but the most devout GPL adherents and perhaps goad them to think about their religion and reflexive hostility to close-source development. It’s not that open source doesn’t have its benefits–it does, and they’re big ones–but just the more modest point that it isn’t best for certain and important kinds of development. Why that is so controversial in some circles is beyond me.

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