The Ultimate Open Source -- Nature
March 2000

People who claim that Open Source software cannot become profitable, or viable, or competitive with the so-called "mainstream" proprietary software are just plain wrong. One example that proves just how wrong they are is -- Nature itself.

Open Source means that people who want to use or modify software have access to *all* of the information necessary to do so. This is different from the proprietary world, where developers and hobbyists are at the mercy of the copyright owner as to just what information is available. The copyright owner may be a Good Guy, and give everyone equal and fair access to all information about APIs, interfaces, protocols, and data formats -- in a timely and accurate manner, with decent documentation -- or else he/she may be a Bad Guy, using this vital information to play favorites and tilt the marketplace unnaturally toward their own private, closed solution. They may do this by selective revelation, or by deceptive revelation -- actually lying about the innards of their code. The prime example of this Bad Guy character in today's world is, of course, Microsoft.

But wait a minute -- what's "unnatural" about tilting the playing field toward one's own product? Doesn't everyone do that? Yes, up to a point. The use of marketing, innovation, and hard-nosed negotiation has historically been the competitive methodology of businesses of every size and in every market. But the difference is that in the manufacturing and sale of physical products, such as automobiles, homes, clothing, and foodstuffs, there has always been a "base" or "core" level of natural law that is available to all competitors equally. Even if one competitor learned of an extension to this core law by laboratory research, there were natural limits on just how far this competitor could go to exploit this knowledge. Awareness of natural law does not allow one to break that law. Awareness of natural law does not necessarily lead to elegant, marketable implementation of that law. And there is the element of time limitations of patentable discoveries and applications -- which even in its current "unnaturally" long 20-year period is still better than the 70-year period applied to copyrights.

Therefore, physical products have always had the natural limits of a core of "open source" knowledge, the Laws of Nature, which composed a more or less level playing field. Every competitor in the market for clothing, or furniture, or gasoline, could allocate some of their resources to the discovery of chemical and physical properties of various raw materials. Once aware of these laws of nature, the competitor could use them to his or her competitive advantage, but they could never be broken. And what is more, the natural law advantage of one competitor did not necessarily lead to the demise of a different set of natural law advantages gained by another competitor. Discovering one gasoline additive would not necessarily exclude a competitor from using a different additive that they had derived on their own. And most importantly, natural law could not be rewritten by one competitor to selectively target the innovations of another competitor.

Ah, but here we get to the heart of the matter. Software is different from natural law, because it does not have to be obedient or subservient to a core layer of public knowledge. There are laws of logic, of course, but software does not necessarily have to be logical or predictable or "deterministic" -- just look at the unpredictable and disorderly performance of Windows, for example. The Operating System of a computer is roughly equivalent to the foundation upon which all software development projects are built -- the operating system is the substitute for Natural Law. The important thing to note is that operating system vendors who keep their code secretive and hidden way are gaining an "unnatural" advantage over competitors in that the owner of such software has defined everything down to the bare metal -- the look and feel, the data architecture, and performance characteristics -- in an environment limited only by the underlying hardware and peripherals. Via the unreasonable application of copyright law and its 70-year typical span of secrecy, a competing software innovator can be denied access to key information about his or her operating environment literally for an entire lifetime.

Yes, imagine trying to design an effective automobile, but the chemical composition of various brands of gasoline is off-limits. You cannot "reverse-engineer" the gasoline, if the new UCITA statute becomes law. You cannot look in the CRC Handbook for the chemical structure of various metals, plastics, or fuels, because that information is not published -- it's a "trade secret" of the Owner of All Materials. You cannot even calculate the effects of gravity -- the formula for gravity has been classified as a "trade secret" by somebody who got there first!

Worse yet, imagine that you research and discover a great new chemical composition for tires. You get all the legal clearances, begin production, and schedule delivery for millions of long-wearing, high-performance tires that undercut the competition's price structure. Then one day you wake up, and a particular law of chemistry has been repealed. Your wonderful new tires sit rotting in warehouses, because the new discovery you worked and sweated and invested in for many years is suddenly invalid. Overnight, somebody just waved their hands and Poof! -- the laws of chemistry changed.

Well, getting the rug pulled out from under you by a competitor's ability to change the laws of nature just can't happen in the Real World. But in the software world, particularly the Windows world, the rules of the game can be changed at a moment's notice by Microsoft with a new product release, a free software patch, or an ActiveX control. It is simply UNNATURAL to have one company control the software "laws of nature" and abuse them so greedily. Imagine how backwards and decrepit our 21st-century technologies would be today, if some clergy-like group of industrialists had had the power to keep natural laws secret from mankind. Just think of Microsoft as the Software Clergy.

Most recent revision: March 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.