Public Domain Python

Grant Griffin g2 at
Thu Sep 14 23:16:17 CEST 2000

Alex Martelli wrote:
> If you're really interested in such economic issues, then I can
> recommend _another_ Raymond's piece, "The Magic Cauldron",

Yup, that's a good one.

However, I think it stretches things a bit.  I think it's reasonable to
assume that free/open software will truly thrive and prosper in the long
run only if its users (or at least some small portion of them) can
somehow be made to pay for its development.  However, speaking as a
businessman, I don't find any of the "Indirect Sale-Value Models" at all
viable for a niche business like mine--they only seem to make sense only
for high-volume stuff like operating systems.

Awhile back, I had written to ESR to (respectfully) point out how
hopelessly naive the following statement in the otherwise-astute "The
Magic Cauldron" is:

   "They're [open-source software houses] demonstrably willing to hire
expensive talent for projects that are not direct revenue generators
even during the most capital-hungry phases of the runup to IPO. "

If *I* were about to do an IPO, I'd hire such expensive talent
*especially* in a runup to an IPO.  Given the not-really-proven business
concept of "open source", having a big name like "Linus Torvalds",
"Richard Stallman", "Larry Wall", and, of course, "Guido van Rossum"
<<gesundheit!>> on the payroll sure would attract an IPO's favorite kind
of investors: those who get so excited by sizzle, but don't worry much
about the steak.

When Transmeta announced their new product recently <<already fell off
the radar screens>>, for example, it made the evening news, in part,
because Linus Torvalds was on the payroll.  (We know that because he was
mentioned in the story.)  And that sort of publicity is worth whatever
they paid for him: he doesn't even have to actually _do anything_ to
earn his pay!  (I think it was mentioned that he was being paid partly
in shares. ;-)

> There's nothing either anarchistic or socialistic in Raymond's
> vision as sketched in Magic Cauldron: the key motive is good
> old enlightened greed, with Adam Smith's "magic hand" in an
> important (supporting:-) role.  My take on this is that the
> intrinsic advantages of open-source software are akin to those
> of (Ricardian) free-trade.  Such advantages may not make it
> prevail, because rent-seeking behaviour by those advantaged
> by protectionism, trying to keep profiting to everybody else's
> loss, is likely, and might succeed (just like protectionism has
> many friends, and has blocked much of the advantages truly
> free trade would confer).  Capitalism has huge intrinsic
> advantages in terms of effectiveness, but feudalism managed
> to hold out in France, despite it being a rather advanced
> country, until the late 1700's , to give another example.

That's an interesting comparison.  However, I'm tempted to say that
although free trade is a good thing in every case (IMHO), the software
world will forever consist of a mixture of free/open and
commercial/closed.  I personally believe that as a business proposition
(rather than an ideology), there still are and forever will be cases
where commercial/closed software makes more business sense.

For example, in the past I have designed little black boxes for
aircraft; the user doesn't want the source code (he relies on regulatory
authorities to assure its "quality"), and the manufacture doesn't want
to open it up to his competitors.  Therefore, to generalize a little, in
cases where opening the source code brings little or no value to end
users (as in the case of little black aircraft boxes), keeping it closed
is a better business proposition.  The principle, then, is that when the
"cost" of opening source code to the author is more than the "value"
that the end-user gains, it will not happen.

It's interesting, though, to think about the fact that the _circuitry_
of those little black boxes is open to all, in the form of user's
manuals and such.  In a way, the (incidental) fact that compilation of
software obscures it (to all but the most determined) has lead us to
ship it mostly as "closed source".  But in the case of a circuit
schematic, 1) it's a lot easier for it to be "reverse engineered", and
2) the end-user finds real value in being able to maintaing the
circuitry.  (After all, there's no need to maintain software. 
Waitaminute... <wink>)

> The unrestrained triumph of open (or free) software will not, by
> itself, give you that, any more than, say, that of free trade would.

One of my points along the way has been that if free/open software isn't
economically beneficial in-and-of-itself, it won't fly in the long run;
conversely, if it _is_ beneficial, the constraints placed on the freedom
of users of free/open software by the GPL's "copyleft" construct aren't
necessary, and therefore tend to work against the overall proliferation
of free/open software.

Although there currently is a lot of "hype" around the concept of
free/open software, it has now become such a big thing that one can only
conclude that there must some real economic value in there _somewhere_. 
Python is a good example of an open-source economic efficiency. 
Although it runs on numerous operating systems/environments, there is
only one implementation (of the full system); one doesn't see numerous
re-implementations of the whole thing, as one sees in things which
didn't originate as free/open software.



Grant R. Griffin                                       g2 at
Publisher of dspGuru                 
Iowegian International Corporation

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