Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Care and Feeding of FOSS: The Lifecycle of Software Technology

Stage 5. FOSS Domination

With the slow pace of innovation of the Maturity phase, the FOSS community begins to slowly but inexorably erode the technical lead held by the commercial offerings. FOSS versions of the technology may have been present all along, but the pace of innovation during the Expansion phase often left them in the dust. But now, with the technology mature and the pace of innovation slow, FOSS becomes the proverbial turtle, plugging along toward the finish line, slow but unstoppable. Feature by feature, the FOSS developers eat away at the commercial products.

The commercial suppliers are doubly cornered.

First, the product is no longer cutting edge, so staffing is reduced and management interest is low. Since there's little innovation, R&D costs are low, which means profits are high. Developers who want to innovate are discouraged, because there's little potential return on investment.

Second, the technology has expanded to the logical boundaries, and additional features are less and less relevant to the core technology. These two factors slow innovation dramatically in the commercial sector.

Sooner or later, the FOSS product not only matches the commercial products feature-for-feature, but the nature of open-source software makes the FOSS product more reliable, higher performance and (where security is a concern) more trusted.

During this "end game", there is often a series of attacks on the FOSS software by commercial suppliers.These vary but may include legitimate competitive attacks such as feature or performance comparisons and support issues. There may be a spurt of new R&D. Sometimes legalistic tricks are used to block FOSS acceptance, such as certification requirements that are incompatible with FOSS itself, or getting standards bodies to accept patented technology as a "standard". As FOSS continues to erode the commercial market share, the attacks often turn turn somewhat shady or desperate, such as unfounded claims of security problems, copyright or patent attacks, hints that FOSS is written by "foreigners" with unsavory motives, and other "mud slinging" tactics.


The Error of Hard-Core FOSS Advocates

There is a group of FOSS idealists who, for lack of a better term, I will call "hard core" FOSS advocates. I mean no disrespect by the term, in fact, I admire most groups who have strong ideals and work to achieve them. As folk-singer Arlo Guthrie says, "I'd rather have friends who care than friends who agree with me."

The hard-core FOSS advocates would like to go directly from Stage 1 (Innovation) to Stage 6 (The FOSS Era) and skip the whole commercial part. They argue that proprietary software ownership is undesirable at best, and immoral or unethical at the worst.

But ignores capitalism and human nature, and the economic forces that help fund and drive the creative process in Western society. In spite of fundamental differences between software and brick-and-mortar industries, software follows the same first four phases of the lifecycle.

Capitalism has a way of getting things done, of bringing resources and energy to a problem quickly and efficiently. When there's money to be made, capitalism can be a powerful, positive force. Investors pay handsomely, and innovators flourish in their pay. Capitalism fosters the basic competitive instincts of human nature

Capitalism also encourages an odd sort of "collaboration": Secrecy abounds, but innovation, once commercialized, spreads rapidly through the industry, sparking new levels of creativity and innovation. In addition, the profit motive encourages companies to "steal" one another's key personnel, further fostering this strange collaboration.

At the same time, capitalism stifles software innovation. Each company wants to get the edge, the latest feature, the one innovation that everyone will need and only they can provide. To achieve this, commercial vendors are secretive, and go to great lengths to protect their ideas and innovations. More importantly, once they invent something useful, they often will attempt to block others from the new technology. They'll use anything and everything to develop and keep a monopolistic position, including patents (sometimes absurd ones), highly-restrictive licensing agreements, lawsuits over alleged copyright infringement, employment contracts that turn employees into virtual indentured servants, and anything else they can think of to "protect their turf."

It is this behavior that bothers FOSS advocates. Capitalism is a double-edged sword for software. It both fosters and stifles innovation and collaboration.

The Care and Feeding of FOSS: The Lifecycle of Software Technology

Essays by Craig A. James

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