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October 26, 2002 / gus3

Mandated Mediocrity

(Warning: The following article is very pro-freedom, pro-captialist, and anti-Microsoft. Readers continue at their own risk.)

You have probably already heard about, or even read, Jim Allchin’s recent comments about Open Source. You may have laughed at the sheer ignorance on display; maybe your face turned red with anger. For my own part, the only emotional reaction I had was disgust, similar to what I would feel upon seeing rotten fish left in the sun. As someone in charge of operating systems development, Mr. Allchin comes up remarkably wanting when it comes to personal, historic, and legal realities.

He really doesn’t understand that there are people who will program computers until the day they die. The satisfaction they derive from it is just like the “runner’s high,” the surfer’s being “in the tube,” and so on. On the one hand, getting the system (of any kind) to work smoothly and efficiently is a fantastic reward in itself. On the other hand, the ego boost that comes with other users’ gratitude is nice as well. This is taking part in what Eric Raymond refers to as the “gift economy.” Deny these to the programmer, and you will see what forced impoverishment can do to a person.

I’m sure Mr. Allchin expects his own subordinates to receive some of this satisfaction. If they didn’t, their work would turn into a simple routine. Put in an eight- or ten-hour day, and then go home. You’ll get your thanks when you get your paycheck. How long would the programmers stay if the company took that attitude? How long would the developers under Mr. Allchin be able to keep their jobs if they took that attitude?

Historically, his company arose in a nation that started with the idea that “we think we can do it better”. How ironic it is that the United States of America declared its independence from England, but Mr. Allchin wants to subjugate software projects that have no official sanction. He forgets that the men who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, so that he would be free to choose how to live his life. Those same freedoms which he takes for granted (including the freedom to choose what software he runs on his computer) are placed at risk when he points an accusing finger at the Open Source movement.

Legally, the very products that Mr. Allchin oversees are extremely risky for a customer to use. The operating system manages everything on the computer, and hence the danger of damage caused by any bug increases by several orders of magnitude. If someone wants to audit the OS source code, rather than trusting someone who says “it’s stable,” they can choose Linux, the *BSD flavors, and the Debian GNU/Hurd, plus some of the commercial Unix brands. Not only that, the patches and bug fixes are also available for scrutiny before installation. Given the track record for bug fixes out of Redmond (NT4 Service Packs, anyone?), I dare Mr. Allchin to admit that his product is in severe need of public scrutiny. I know, it’s unlikely to happen.

The sad reality is this: When you buy Windows, you are giving Microsoft all the credit for your system’s good performance. However, if an upgrade wipes the screenplay you spent three years on, and the backup as well when you try to recover your files, the blame you can place on Microsoft is limited to the purchase price. If you attempt to hold them accountable beyond that, you will be told that “you must have done something wrong.” For any legal action, the burden of proof (at least in the USA) is on you, as the plaintiff, to prove that their product was defective. Without the source code, how can you do that? They’ve taken steps to make sure you can give them all the credit, but very little of the blame.

Yet, when someone wants to allow others to scrutinize the source code, look for bugs, and make it as robust as possible before putting it to use, Mr. Allchin sees that as a threat. Never mind that the US Court of Appeals has ruled, in effect, that making source code available on the Internet is a form of free speech (Bernstein v. US Dept. of Commerce). If I create a program, and then publish the source code on the Internet, should I no longer be allowed to use it? How does that affirm my intellectual property rights? So much for the “American Way” that Mr. Allchin claims to support.

The final, fatal flaw in his argument is his weak attempt to tie Open Source to Napster. He forgets that Napster is a tool, and using it is not a crime. The crime is in sharing copyrighted material, something that can be done just as easily through IRC, FTP, or HTTP. If a tool is used in committing a crime, does that mean we should ban the use of the tool? Robert Hanssen used a Palm Pilot to help him transfer government secrets into Russian hands. Should the use of PDA‘s be outlawed? By Mr. Allchin’s analysis, yes. But he’s wrong. Possessing a PDA is not a crime. Using Napster is not a crime. Sharing code that I wrote is not a crime, once I have placed it under the GPL.

Remember, Open Source is all about choice, for developers and users alike.

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