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Getting Open Source Right

May 23, 2008, 22:30 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

In his rationalization about why government-mandated open source software deployment is not a good idea, Microsoft's Director of Standards made some assumptions about what the real value of open source software (OSS) is for governments.

Like most assumptions about open source from Microsoft, a big piece of the overall picture is conveniently left out.

The context of Matusow's blog entry is a trip he recently took to South Africa where he had talks about interoperability and open source issues. As noted in a Tectonic article, Matusow's visit fell around the same time the South African government was approving the OpenDocument Format (ODF) for government use. (Funny...)

Matusow argues that the mandate of any one IT methodology is really not a good idea, because it tends to lock-in governments to only one way of doing things. Mandate only open source, he argues, and then you leave out all of the other nifty tools you can use for your government.

Which, on the surface, does seem to contradict the whole notion of freedom that OSS advocates cherish. But if you dig just a little deeper, you can see there's some shaky assumptions propping this argument up.

The first assumption is that governments who choose OSS are trying to generate a strong local economy/development ecosystem. Matusow then generally claims that this kind of ecosystem is improbable to create because any real innovation in the open source world is just going to be snatched up by the few big commercial vendors anyway, such as Red Hat. This assumption basically paints the entirety of the open source collection of companies as a single entity that has just as much of a chance to suck resources and create vendor lock-in as any other single vendor.

This kind of altered reality is really the only way an OSS lock-in argument will work. Do the commercial OSS vendors incorporate home-grown technologies into their final products? Of course they do, that's the nature of open source. But Matusow blithely ignores the fact that any software used and changed by a big vendor will have its changes pushed back upstream to the original, local coder. He also ignores the reality that the availability of large OSS projects will allow the local companies to build their tools faster and better than they would completely on their own.

And then there's the notion of OSS vendors as one, big entity. There's an entire spectrum of OSS companies, all happily competing against each other. If Red Hat were to try to make a deal with a government, don't you think Novell and Mandriva would be there trying to make the same deal? Competition, to me, means that customer has more choice, not less.

Matusow then goes on to make another, more specific, assumption about South Africa. Their local developers don't seem to have the skill set to do any real contributions to OSS anyway, so the benefit of local participation is lost on them anyway.

Ignoring the fact that this is the single most arrogant thing I think I have heard anyone say about a nation's potential (I'll let my colleagues take that part of the argument on), who is Matusow to say anything about who can code what for Linux and OSS? Is you said "nobody," you're absolutely right.

Matusow cheerfully tells his blog audience outrageous statements about South African development skills, all the while missing one of the biggest parts of OSS development: it's an open meritocracy. If you or I want to code for Linux, we can look at the code that's there and learn from it. If we learn enough, then we can try our hand at sending in some code to some small part of the kernel. If the lead developer for that section likes it, maybe it will be included in the next merge window. If Linus or one of the lead maintainers likes what we wrote, maybe it will be officially a part of Linux.

Note, that at no time in this scenario, did anyone ask anything about where the developer is from or how he learned to code. No one's checking passports at the door. Ever. Contributions are based on how good the code is. I realize that's a hard thing for someone at Microsoft to grasp, but anyone who claims to have watched open source development should know that by now.

Is this always the case? No. Sometimes errors creep in and are not caught effectively. Sometimes personal disputes between developers will keep a nice bit of code out of a project because someone's having a fit of pique. But in general, the practice of Linux and most OSS development projects is to take the best code, no matter who built it or where it comes from.

This isn't just because Matusow, a Microsoft employee said this. I should point out that it would be the same case if someone like Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman or Ian Murdock went insane and made the same statement. None of these guys, or any other player in OSS, big or small, has the right to issue sweeping generalizations about who's worthy to participate in the development of a free or open source project.

That's what open means.