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The Free versus Proprietary Debate

Feb 18, 1999, 20:42 (29 Talkback[s])

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by Mark Hammer

Linux used to exist in a small cloistered world where only the truly initiated were allowed in. It was rough. It wasn't pretty. Above all else, it was arcane. Only the true believers who had the fortitude, motivation, and perseverance to learn its secrets were allowed in. As such, it was very much a closed community. This community had its limitations, but it was comfortable and rewarding. There is always something exhilarating about knowing a secret that nobody else knows.

But Linux had one thing going for it, the gift culture. It thrives on being a gift culture. Riches increase by giving. The more you give, the richer everybody gets. It is this engine that has taken Linux from an idea of a Finnish college student to the point that it is truly poised to take over the world.

As Linux is starting to immerge from obscurity into the light, things are changing. The high walls against the outside are breaking down. The rites of initiation are being simplified. The secret arcane codes are being marginalized. With the lowering of the walls, the riches within are being laid bare to the world, and the world wants in.

The world is changing. Things are different now, and people are always fearful of what is different. This fear manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some people decry the loss of the small, intimate, closed community. They long to return to the days where they were the keepers of the secret priesthood rites. But those days for Linux are gone. You can never go home again.

Still others react with horror that people motivated by profit are entering the community. Perhaps they are fearful that these greedy souls will seize the riches of open source and carry it off and place it under lock and key against the true believers. These well-intended individuals lose sight of the fact that the strength of community is in giving, not receiving. Linux can give and give and give. It is in a position that it never needs to be exhausted. There is truly enough for everybody. How can the community lock up what is meant to be freely given? Free means free. The day the community begins judging who is worthy of its gifts is the day that Linux begins to falter, become corrupt, and die.

If someone wishes to carry off the riches of Linux, let them. Then both they and the community enjoy them since they both possess them. The world is correspondingly richer. In return, if that someone wishes to offer something to the community with strings attached, why quibble? Are we so ungrateful that we can't accept the gift as is? Even with its attached strings, it still enriches the community does it not? Besides, as this outsider becomes more comfortable with the gift-culture he will notice that his neighbor who has cut his strings is getting richer than he. It is the nature of the community. He will eventually realize on his own that cutting his strings will be in his best interests. If he doesn't, then the world will pass him by. That is the natural order of things.

There is no need to set up a purity test among Linux vendors. The very nature of the community will encourage open-source. Vendors will eventually adopt it in self-defense when they see their competitors moving ahead leaving them struggling to catch up. It all works out quite nicely.

So, the Linux community can choose to continue to grow, to bring everybody under its roof thereby enriching us all; or it can choose to close its doors to the unworthy and be less rich because of it. Your choice.