The path to truth

In Mel Brooks' classic movie Young Frankenstein, whenever someone says Frau Blucher's name, horses whinny. Mentioning Linux in this column has a similar effect.

"The rub ... is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out."


Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine

In Mel Brooks' classic movie Young Frankenstein, whenever someone says Frau Blucher's name, horses whinny. Mentioning Linux in this column has a similar effect.

A month or so ago I suggested CIOs consider migrating their desktops to Linux as a logical response to where Microsoft seems to be taking its licensing. With a few exceptions, most correspondents welcomed me to the path of truth and righteousness.

It was not to last. The next week I questioned whether the open-source licensing model can move beyond "me-too" products to create significant innovation. I immediately fell from grace.

I don't understand why, though. Some drug companies innovate, developing new and innovative pharmaceuticals. Others manufacture inexpensive copies -- generic drugs -- and serve a valuable purpose by doing so. Thus far the role of open source, in the desktop marketplace at least, seems parallel to that of the generic drug companies.

Most proponents of open-source software either described whatever happens to have been developed with an open-source licence as innovative -- which is true in a black-is-the-same-as-white-only-darker kind of way -- or they said that this will change over time, in particular because more open-source developers exist than any single software company could ever employ.

But this argument doesn't hold together well. Commercial software companies organise their developers into teams that focus on developing specific products. In the open-source community, developers generally contribute as individuals.

Other correspondents pointed out, correctly, that there are a significant number of innovative open source products. Interestingly, all are development or administrative tools; none they mentioned are end user-oriented applications.

Which makes sense to me: a single developer can successfully create a language or utility, which other individual developers can extend incrementally. A team of developers, on the other hand, can create coherent products with a consistent user interface and architecture -- something that's awfully hard for the open-source community's evolutionary model to manage.

Most worrisome to me were the letters describing the importance of the open-source movement that dealt with the open-source v proprietary licensing question as one of good v evil. Opinion: if you think in these terms, you need to peel the onion a bit. And if you think in these terms, I have one other thing to say to you: Blucher!

Rent the video. Or, send an email to Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, an independent consultancy specialising in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment.

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