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Why to Build on FOSS in the First Place

Doc Searls

Issue #165, January 2008

Linux, free software and open source may be “generic”. But, that's why you need it.

The GNU Project has been around since 1983, Linux since 1991, Linux Journal since 1994 and the Open Source Initiative since 1998. That means some of us been explaining this stuff for going on a quarter century—or more, in some cases.

Yet, we're not being clear. What's obvious to us is still not apparent to others, even after years of explaining what it's all about. Hardly a week goes by when I don't find myself explaining, for example:

  • Free software and open source are not just ways to cheap out.

  • Asking “How do you make money with it?” is the wrong question.

  • Much more money is made by using Linux than by selling it.

It helps to use the Net as an example, because it's more than something you've gotta have; it's foundational.

But Linux, free software and open source aren't there yet. They've “won” in many cases, but their advantages are plain only to technologists, and far from all of those. Those of us who understand it are still being opaque to high-level decision-makers.

Last October the on-line magazine Baseline ran a story titled “CIOs Told to Make Conspicuous Contribution to Revenue”. It was a report from the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Orlando. The goal, they were told, was to “try to define IT as an integral part of the business”, and “aligned with initiatives that really make a difference for the business”. Said Mark P. McDonald, group Vice President for Gartner's executive programs, “In 2008, your goal should be to stamp out generic IT.”

The problem word, of course, is generic. Linux is generic. Free software and open-source building materials are all generic. They aren't no-names, but they are, by intention, commodities. Yet common wisdom says that if you want something to be known, to be unique, to be valuable, it can't be generic.

Linux and the whole FOSS portfolio, now numbering several hundred thousand code bases, are both generic and valuable. They just don't have a value that's made to sell. As Eric S. Raymond pointed out long ago, open-source code has enormous “use value”. Thanks to that use value, Google can exist. Amazon can exist. The Net itself can exist.

What's missing is the connection between pure use value and all kinds of sale value. That's what we've been calling the because effect. You make money because of free and open code, not just with it.

I suggest the relationship here is between foundations and the structures that rest on them. You can talk about architecture and design all day, but none of it will be worth anything if it doesn't sit on a strong foundation. This fact does not diminish the importance of foundations. Quite the opposite. Foundations are, in nearly all cases, 100% useful and 0% flashy. Their job is not to augment the building, but rather to augment the geology below it.

Now, let's go back to Baseline's coverage of the Gartner event where CIOs were being warned about “generic IT”. A companion piece, titled “The 10 Most Important Technology Areas for 2008, Per Gartner”, outlines a pile of nongeneric things IT can do to win the hearts and minds on companies' top floors and corner offices. Among them are “social software”, “Web platform and Web-oriented architecture”, “metadata management” and “green IT”. All of those are bound to deploy easier, and work better, if they're built on free and open foundations.

Back in the November 1999 issue of Linux Journal, I wrote a column titled “Hacking an Industry”. Here's an excerpt, from a section where I was talking about e-commerce:

Now think about the infrastructure involved here....“Huge” doesn't cover it. What's it going to take to build out the infrastructure behind all that? We know it'll take two things for sure: Linux and Apache—two well-proven kinds of building material. Of course, Windows 2000 will be involved too. There are just too many people already constructing this new skyline with Microsoft tools and building materials. The difference is that the builders themselves help improve Linux, Apache and other open-source products. They can't do the same for Microsoft.

One developer put it to me this way: “When I'm building a skyscraper, I want to know there's rebar in the concrete. With Linux, I know. With Microsoft, I don't. In fact, NT's memory leaks prove to me there isn't rebar in there. Since I have to work with NT for political reasons, I just cope with it. But I know if we could see the source, we could probably fix the problem pretty fast.”

More than eight years later, IT's foundations include a lot more than Linux and Apache. But they still don't show off. They just support everything. Yet this can't be obvious if people still want to burden foundations with making money or “contributing to revenue”.

So the real challenge here is understanding infrastructure—of knowing, clearly, what's foundational and what isn't. Even with the Net, which has the clearest pure use value on Earth, most of us still don't grok that it's a pure utility like water, roads and waste treatment. Yes, it has costs, but its use value verges on the absolute: you have to have it.

So that's the point. Running your IT on FOSS is as necessary as erecting your buildings on a solid foundation. You can find that out now or later, when you have to build your IT architecture all over again.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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