Friday, November 7, 2003

Name Your Poison

Tea and colonialism do have a colorful history, but who would think that there could be anything controversial about tea drinking habits these days. Apparently there is.

You see, Earl Grey was a bigot. At least this was the argument put forth in my college dorm committee for ceremoniously removing that beverage choice from our cafeteria. In the early nineties, the popular libation to target for boycot by those with liberal leanings was Coca-Cola, due to their investments in South Africa. But Earl Grey? Frankly, given the fact that he was an eighteenth century British aristocrat, what would have been more surprising would have been the off-chance that he wasn't a bigot. From my brief Google search, he apparently was a poltical reformer, but that's not the point.

The point is that, at the end of the day, sometimes it's just bergamot-flavored tea.

I have to give certain people credit for sexing up the debate on open source because orgies and acid kool-aid sound far more intriguing.
Hmm, if you went as far as the electric kool-aid acid test, you'd even get a Tom Wolfe-y sort of flair.

Ironically, propaganda hack that I am, I personally can't seem to conjure up much enthusiasm for the topic. The debate generally falls into two categories. The first is overgeneralizing open source, which is generally recognized to be software released under an open source license. The problem there is that there are far too many permutations involving licenses, software to which the model is applied, associated business model and people involved in the various projects to say much of interest here. The second pitfall is the beauty pageant approach, which amounts to a listing of "people and projects I generally fancy" or, conversely, "people and projects that I feel deserve to rot." The latter offers some insight into the "I" in question and can be helpful depending on how one values the author's judgment, but it still fails to abstract out the issue of open source.

There are some arguments against Open Source that one sees time and again.

Not all talented engineers work in open source.
Well, there's no sport in arguing that one. True, especially considering the majority of open source projects don't pay and most of us have the burden of earning a living.

This second point is really a sub-point of the first. Loud mouthed, egotistical people are more likely to be idiots. There a lots of loud-mouthed, egotistical people in open source, therefore it must be populated by idiots.

Well I've got to hand it to the critics there--they've got a rich target. The truth is that the open source community does a great job of portraying itself as a bunch of whiny, immature kids and adults, consumed by their own self-importance. The only thing that would appear to exceed their own estimation of their self-worth and disdain for the outside community, would be the disdain the various members of the open source community express for each other. However, regardless of what the statistics say, and despite the fact that it might be a desirable thing, I have a hard time believing that the absence of natural modesty is the unique province of the untalented. I, myself, consider modesty an admirable virtue. Like so many in whom virtue is largely lacking, I absolutely do recognize and appreciate it in others. I love the virtuous. They are delightful people. They never trumpet their own horn, nor are they judgemental. Their very existence is an inspiration. Just being around them makes me want to go out and be a better person. It's a pity there aren't more of them.

There is no barrier to entry for open source: any hack can give it a shot.

Yes, that's pretty self-evident. But how many of the projects do you really need to succeed? The market eventually determines success. The project either gains market share or it doesn't. I am no expert in all the open source projects but I have a hard time believing that the project could be successful and be awful at the same time. And what if the code did suck? Did you pay any money for it? The worst you could claim is that you wasted your time. That's not going to get you too much sympathy. I'm sure more people waste time on IRC chats, forums and reading and writing blogs than they do fiddling around with Open Source. What really intrigues me is when people make comparisons between the source code in an open source project and a proprietary project--like JBoss and BEA. The only people who can make that claim are the developers who write the code for our proprietary competitors, and they're hardly going to be any less biased than we are.

People (especially the better developers) go to Open Source to learn. If you're using open source, you're a guinea pig for developers who are learning to get it right.

Geez, that wouldn't be something proprietary software companies do to their customers, would it? At any rate, in our field there weren't any veteran J2EE app server container designers when JBoss started out. Everybody was learning at the same time.

Anybody can commit code to an open source project. That is scary.

It is absolutely scary. I wouldn't trust an open source project that didn't tightly control its commits.

The pressures under which corporate developers work (read: if it don't work, your company and, eventually you, don't get paid) make them more likely to write quality software.

I agree there, unless the open source project has a tightly integrated, for-profit business model that pays the developers (not just third party investors) and effectively puts the same pressure on them that proprietary software developers experience.

Corporations are natural meritocracies. Thus, wanting to experience the rewards of their merit, the best developers tend to work for for-profit, proprietary software companies.

Well, I have to thank my critic friends for that one because it's every bit as laughable as me entering JBoss in some sort of Open Source "Miss Congeniality" contest. Yes, some corporations are meritocracies, but if there were so many of them I wonder why the movie Office Space was so popular?

Open Source borrows and builds on a lot of stuff. You don't know where it came from.

Well, isn't that the nature of modern software development, to build on the work of others? It's called not re-inventing the wheel. JBoss stands behind its software. Like HP for Linux, we will be offering an indemnification clause as part of our paying production support contracts.

Since most of us stand on the shoulders of giants and creatively appropriate and build on pre-existing traditions, what differentiates the successful from the clueless is what they appropriate--you want to make sure and take the sterling silver and the crown jewels, not the plate junk and the imitation paste baubles.

This final point brings me to my conclusion. The outside critics of open source falsely see it as being more exotic than it really is. Open Source did not appear out of thin air. Where do you think we got our good inspirations and bad habits from in the first place? In the business of profitable romance, the only differentiator is how high the stakes are that you play for and the sophistication with which you play. We're almost honest in our petty venality compared to the corporate masters of the game. One executive talks about "open source software crap." Well, I guess it's because we couldn't get away with selling certified, bona fide virtue or six figure proprietary software crap now, could we? And let's talk about the services business. We're just streetwalkers. It's the analysts who really inspire me. It's not even as honest as pay me and I'll say nice things about you; don't pay me and I'll trash you. Unless you're Sun or IBM, dealing with them is to realize what a provincial peasant might feel like when he visits the most expensive brothels in the capital. All that hard-earned money? Well, that just buys you a peck on the cheek and a squeal of self-righteous indignation about compromising certain ideals. You want love, wanna be "enterprise-ready," well sugar pie honey bunch that costs mucho money. Then you get dissed just the same; thrown out the door with insults from those "ladies". Wanna be my sugar daddy, get your sorry ass out of here and come back when you got lotsa cold hard cash to put on the table...There's a reason they call it the oldest profession.

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