Are You Right With Reality?

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." - Albert Einstein

Last week I flew to Las Vegas to talk on stage with The Gartner Group's lead open source analyst Mark Driver at their 2007 Open Source Summit. The subject of the discussion was a paper I presented last year in Kyoto at the STS Forum entitled Software Industry vs. Software Society: Who Wins in 2020?". In that paper I cited a reference that the global IT spend is USD $1T (one trillion dollars!), and of that $1T, $180B is pure write-off of failed applications, and that another $206B (my estimate) is also lost due to late, broken, or late-and-broken applications. Such a dismal result has not only plunged the software industry into crisis, but has put industries using IT at risk.

I went to Las Vegas to see (1) whether the folks at Gartner see the same evidence that I do (that IT-related and IT-caused losses are freakishly out of control), and (2) whether they agreed or disagreed with the analysis I made last year (that defect rates of proprietary software and the architectural inflexibility of monolithic "integrated" solutions militate against innovation and choice). I am happy to report that we saw eye-to-eye on both subjects. Which brings me to question number 3: if the global IT consumer continues to accept IT-related write-downs of $386B/year, are they really right with reality?

Why are the great majority of global IT buyers buying the same (or "upgraded") applications and operating systems from the same proprietary sources in 2007 and expecting that something things will be different than their experience in 2006? Are they insane? Maybe ten years ago they had no choice, but what my STS Forum paper showed was that a radically different model--Open Source Software--delivers radically different, radically better results than have been observed in the proprietary software world. Mark Driver seemed to mostly agree that the benefits of this different approach were radical, and moreover, that those benefits would lead to increased open source adoption by businesses over the next 5 to 7 to 10 years. Which I agree with.

One of the questions we received during the interview was the question "What's the difference between the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative?" I chose to answer the question based on the constituencies of free software and open source. In my view, the fundamental difference between the free software movement and the open source movement is that free software is based on the ethics of software freedom, and open source is based on pragmatic implementation of observed results. I am a believer in fundamental human rights, including the right to live a healthy life free from oppression. But I am also heavily influenced by what science teaches, and when science teaches that we need to respect the environment or we need to pay attention to what we eat in order to live a healthy life, I tend to lean in the direction of protecting oceans and forests for the health of all rather than strip-mining and clear-cutting them for profit today. When I first read the GNU Manifesto I was compelled by the moral and ethical arguments that Stallman presented. But what made me willing to do something different, rather than merely take the side of the argument at cocktail parties, was that I saw the commercial benefits of such a model as well. These benefits have now been validated by academic and commercial case studies alike, many of which are referenced in the paper. Is it unethical to adopt an ethical position based on pragmatic reasons? I don't think so. Is it pragmatic to adopt an ethical position without pragmatic evidence? I don't think so. Thus, I identify with open source because it takes the position of pragmatic validation, even if it validates a position based on ethics. (I should also note that I know many capitalists who believe that it is unethical to ignore what the free market teaches. I consider that a fairly extreme position, but I include it because it shows that some capitalists are, at their core, deeply ethical people.)

Back to the paper...and question number 3. The paper tells the story of W. Edwards Deming trying to convince a bunch of US CEOs that their industrial practices were unsustainable and headed for disaster. These CEOs, flush with victory, flush with capital, and flush with the outrageous bonuses they paid themselves, did not pay attention. Deming did not remain silent, and though it was ignored in the US, he was heard in Japan, and we all know how the next 50 years played out, with Toyota now #1 in their industry. I do believe that 50 years from now, history will show that (1) Open Source provided the software industry with a strategy and a mechanism for emerging from its present crisis, and that (2) those who made the change sooner rather than later became the new industry leaders, and those who fought against it until the bitter end will meet just that-a bitter end.

I am writing a new position paper that I will share in Kyoto next month, synthesizing specific solutions I see to the problems presented in the 2006 paper. But I'll be publishing my prototypes here, on my blog. So if you want to read an advanced copy, stay tuned!


Please do not casually characterize the FSF as "unpragmatic". The FSF has impressive global outreach, helped create SFLC, and got the open source industry started (a few times to its own disadvantage). Even Debian emerged at least as much out of the FSF's program as the open source world's. Please do not casually equivocate "good for business" and "worthy of moral action". They are not unrelated but you tend towards reducing one to the other. Your questioning ("is it wrong to...") invites little more than shreading. The recent meme that OSI and FSF are more or less, per any reaonable person, "the same thing" is an obnoxious and problematic one. It papers over too much. I know that OSI encountered an identity crisis post ESR but... that's an odd way to try to fix it. I think your position is stronger if it is mostly one of silence on the comparisons to FSF. If your position is of a deep compatability here, then the conduct of OSI needs no apology, no theory -- it's just compatable, and, from the FSF perspective -- you're helping. On the other hand, if you insist on theories and equivocations, then you come off like you are trying to coopt something bigger than you. -t

I don't think he was trying to say the FSF is completely unpragmatic, and they're certainly not. They actively develop real, useful, software, and always have. However, it's true that OSI was founded on pragmatism and FSF was founded on ethics. I also agree that it's ethical to take an ethical position for pragmatic reasons. In short, I see no equivocation, and don't find any compatibility with the FSF objectionable.

"it's true that OSI was founded on pragmatism and FSF was founded on ethics." I don't think so. I think that's "not even wrong" in both cases. It's just a nonsense way to look at it. Sorry. This isn't the time or place for the debate but OSI was very much founded on an ethics that counterposed itself to the FSF. OSI is remembered, these days, for the pragmatic tactic of being friendly with a few influential corporations but that tactic was deployed on behalf of an ethical point of view. It would be sleezy to try and pretend otherwise, which is an example of why I suggest that the final article would be better off avoiding the topic. Both the FSF and the OSI come from choices about morality and ethics combined with pragmatism. It's objectionable to try and polarize the mythology about them otherwise. If the implicit claim intended here isn't merely that today's OSI is compatable but that, all along, it has been complementary and supportive: I just have to question the relevance of making such a strong, implausible claim. -t

Hi Michael, Interesting post. The link to your STS paper appears to be broken. The correct link appears to be .

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