The new paradigm is Linux

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 22, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The first time I sensed the potential of free software was when I tried GNU Parted. As an OS/2 user, I had been impressed by PartitionMagic, one of the few pieces of software to originate on that doomed platform. But if Parted could do the same functions reliably, how could proprietary software like PartitionMagic hope to compete? As things happened, I was overly optimistic, but my rhetorical question was correct all the same -- it just ignored a lot of other considerations that took time to overcome.

At the time, I knew too little to appreciate how radical the logic of free software actually was. Twenty years after the first personal computers, software was considered a commodity. Of course you bought it. More -- you paid extra for the reassurance of the brand and the convenience of support. As the saying went, no one could go wrong buying IBM -- or Microsoft or Symantec, or any of half a dozen other industry leaders. It says something for the conservatism of the times that buying Apple seemed Bohemian. Anyone who suggested otherwise must have a sinister agenda.

Such an outlook has taken more years than I imagined possible to fade away. The idea that alternative viewpoints were possible, much less practical, took a long time to percolate through the technology industry -- despite its reputation for cutting edge thought. No doubt the Dot Com bubble, with its blind belief in the power of free software didn't help, either, despite the success of a handful of companies like Red Hat.

Changing the paradigm
Specifically, what conventional business balked at was the idea of limited co-operation, and the de-emphasis of intellectual property. Under free software, business is no longer total war. Instead of fighting your opponents every step of the way, you speed development by working together on common interests. In return, you earn the benefit of faster development times, and a quicker time to market -- all of which seems a reasonable tradeoff in an industry where thinking beyond a financial quarter ahead makes you a visionary.

At first, the advantages of these tradeoffs was more theoretical than real. Most free software was far behind its proprietary rivals. Companies like Microsoft were prematurely alarmed over practically nothing, because for years only idealists like me would use inferior software, and never mind that it was free for the download.

Gradually, however, free software improved. Five years into the millennium, it was starting not only to match proprietary feature sets, but in some cases to out do them. Even though the challenge to proprietary software was still largely theoretical, you can mark its reality in the steadily lowering prices of Microsoft's flagship product, Windows and Microsoft Office. Increasingly unable to offer features that free software couldn't match and make available in a few months, Microsoft offered different versions of Windows, and discounts for students, upgraders, and anyone else imaginable until no one was paying the full price. What cost you $500 in 1994 is now expected to cost the average user $120 later this year. The same thing happened with Microsoft Office.

In the end, Microsoft had no choice but to diversify into technology and other services. It even had to encourage free software compatibility with applications like Azure -- not because of a sudden outburst of benevolence, you understand, but because it couldn't overlook such a large chunk of the market.
And so it has been with every other tech-giant in the last decade. IBM accepted free software much earlier than most, probably because it has a history of supporting new technologies. Others, like Google, factored free software into their tactics from the beginning, making themselves the equals of past generations. Apple resisted longer than most, relying on brand prestige, but in the end, it has been dragged kicking and screaming into accepting free software as part of the industry background.

The new normal
Look at the new technologies, and all of them are following a similar pattern. In 1995,  Sun Microsystems introduced Java as proprietary, not freeing the code for another decade. By contrast, Apple introduced Swift in 2014, and announced a year later that its code would be released towards the end of 2015, and support more than Apple products. If Swift is to have any hope of becoming widely used, Apply had little choice.

And so it goes with technology after technology.  OpenStack, CloudFoundry, Node.js -- each has become a consortium working with a free license, with a non-profit foundation to oversee its affairs. Allan Clark of SUSE tells me that some companies participating in OpenStack development are still struggling with the concept of free software and how to introduce its practices into the culture of their companies, but ignoring free software is no longer an option. Instead, the holdouts are going to conferences to take notes about how to work with free software.

About the only places where free software is not making major in-roads is games and the desktop. Still, what is happening is a sign of coming victory, not an immediate one. At least free software is too widespread to be in immediate danger, and maybe a time will come some attention is paid to these holdouts. Maybe, too, a time when come the rights of users will be given equal attention with the advantages to developers. But what is satisfying to a long time observer like me is to see the clear signs that free software is no longer at a disadvantage and increasingly unavoidable

None of this current situation happened overnight. It has happened over fifteen years, so slowly that I have frequently wondered if my rhetorical question was nothing more than naive idealism. However, now in 2015, the implied answer to my question is as obvious as I thought years ago.

How can proprietary software compete with free software? It can't, of course. The industry just takes time to accept the answer, that's all.

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