Code is prose: of open source and revolution

Chris DiBona, Google’s Open Source Program Manager, announced some time back that it (Google) is now a licensee of the Open Invention Network, an organization that wants open source developers to be able to focus on their craft without having to worry about getting sued. The OIN does this by acquiring patents, and then making them available, royalty free, to any entity; individual, institutional, or corporate, that agrees not to assert its patents against the Linux system. This, in stark contrast to Microsoft’s recent approach to patent infringement deals with the likes of Novell and Linspire, the latter of which sealed it’s alienation from the Linux community for it’s seeming utter lack of backbone. While I appreciate a company like Microsoft wanting to protect it’s interests, it truly is a myopic perspective to not see beyond dollars and cents.

At the turn of the 19th century, grand inventions of mechanized wonder transformed much of the world through innovation and competition. While financial gain was the ultimate end for much of the industrial revolution, the spirit of creation transformed nations. This spirit is again being borne on the winds of change.

Software development, and the internet are organic and dynamic forces, the impact of which, are yet to be fully realized. The beginning of this information revolution really started to take shape in the mid to late 80′s, when we saw a few companies position themselves for dominance in markets that they were driving. Innovation in computer hardware and software grew by leaps and bounds for the next decade but this market driven development cycle left little room for thoughtful dialect. Reinforced by huge profits, market driven development has been the standard since.

Code is poetic prose. The art of effective code is stifled by this market driven development. Large companies that are entwined in the misgivings of proprietary license rarely, if ever, see that their closely guarded secrets wither over time for lack of fresh blood. One may argue that hiring of new programmers on a regular basis brings this much needed fresh approach, but we must not forget that in order to be hired by most companies, one must be seen as a good fit with the corporate philosophy and vision – or one must be seen as an easily malleable character that can be molded into the corporate culture with little resistance. In order to adapt and remain competitive, more “natural” forces must be allowed to play out.

When a software product becomes the de facto standard through strategic positioning and sheer marketing power, the motto “give the people what they want” becomes “we’ll give the people what we want” on the assumption that most will take what is given because mass marketing has blinded them to the fact that viable alternatives exist. Even among IT professionals, this ignorance can be quite complete. As I’ve recalled in a previous post, in a discussion with a fellow committee member for the regional technical college, I reiterated how open source and Linux solutions can have a positive effect on the bottom line of any and all businesses. His response of “people wanting what’s tried and true”, clearly demonstrated that even a formally educated person only saw the propaganda and failed to see facts that clearly show the pedigree of the Linux kernel, and many open source projects exceeds that of the Windows kernel by decades.

As the internet and our emergence into this technological revolution coalesce, the outdated models of the 80′s and 90′s are finally beginning to show signs of strain. Consumers now not only want programs that work reliably, they expect them to look slick and have features that they didn’t even know that they needed. Eye candy has little bearing on functionality – or does it? I’ve installed compiz on my KDE desktop because I like things like wobbly windows and rain on my desktop. While many of these effects appear utterly useless, many lend a more natural and tactile feel to my desktop. There are accessibility features too. My favorite is the enhanced zoom. I don’t want to change the default font size in my browser when I can’t read something because it tends to negatively affect the layout of most sites. Too, when working with graphics, it’s nice to press a key and scroll the mouse wheel to get a scaled (not pixelated) zoom anywhere on the screen without having to pick a different tool or open any special programs.

It’s this type of innovation that is beginning to drive the market now. Open source and free software are uniquely poised to dominate in a consumer driven market. It is dawning on consumers that they don’t have to settle for what they are given now. Many, many features and tools that are available for a premium on proprietary systems are available too, and constantly improved upon and advanced through open source channels. We can now make choices based on what we want instead of what we can afford. We can finally say “no” and pursue a viable alternative.

Revolution breaks the chains that bind and I have been liberated by open source and free software.

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