John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 21 November 2003
The Open-Source Inquisition
The open-source holy war is fun to debate but noone ever gets hurt, right? Wrong. Read on and find out how I was subjected to the ***Open-Source Inquisition***.

The latest volley in the war of words over open-source software was triggered by Howard Strauss, an IT manager at Princeton University. In his opinion article he makes a sarcastic criticism of the idea that software can be free. He offers no recommendations. The point of his editorial seems to be purely psychological: to prepare his readers mentally to pay money for software and be suspicious of software that is free. He compares free software to a pitch by Nigerian scam artists.

Strauss' snearing swipe at free software has widened the traditional Microsoft-style attack on open-source source into an attack on all free software; conflating two completely different things. However, in a political battle if the layman can't understand the difference then who cares? Fire away! The grass roots omni-presence of free software seems to be unaffected by all the bluster. Gates and Strauss and their small group of allies seem to be just raging against the wind.

But what is the debate about anyway? First of all I would like to point out the difference between free software and open-source software. Open-source software is generally taken to be any software that has its source code published so that many people can read it and even modify it. The idea is that the program will evolve into something better if touched by many hands. Often open-source software has a GPL license which requires that if you use the GPLed software any software created from it or using it must also be GPLed. This in particular is what Gates Inc. considers dangerous: the idea that the software could spread its legal openness almost like a virus. This has not happened but still Microsoft has issued press releases denouncing open-source for this very reason.

Open-Source Does Not Spread

The reality is that open-source does not spread. Nobody I know takes source code out of say Mozilla and then starts using it in another project, thus supposedly forcing project B to be "infected" with the GPL license. It just doesn't happen. Different projects have totally different source code. If a project has GPL it is always the decision of the project managers--not some vague legal virus that did it.

Using Software Versus Using Code

Even if you have a deadly fear of GPL that doesn't mean you can't use free software. If you use a Mozilla browser that doesn't mean that now you must give away all your products for free. Yet this is exactly what Microsoft tries to suggest by insinuation--that somehow even using a piece of free software like Mozilla or CVS in your organization somehow legally taints your organization into an "open-source" company. The idea is absurd but Microsoft uses its influence to suggest this very idea to executives who may not know any better. Sound unbelievable? Read the next paragraph.

The Open-Source Inquisition

I never used to pay much attention to the division between free and non-free. To me software is a tool and you just use what is handy. Never would I have suspected that I would be subjected to the ***Open-Source Inquisition*** and that this inattention to the politics of open-source would hurt me. But it did.

About two years ago I interviewed for a senior developer position at Genzyme, a major biotech firm in the Boston area and staunch Microsoft shop. In the middle of the interview (conducted by another developer) the following exchange took place,

    Interviewer: "How do feel about open-source software?"

    John Chamberlain: "What do you mean 'feel'?"    (I had no idea I was being set up)

    Interviewer: "Would you use open-source software?"

    John Chamberlain: "In my last position we used some open-source software like CVS,
                       I try to choose the right tool for the job and if the right tool
                       is open-source so be it."
I didn't find out until later when I read some business-oriented trade rags that I had been egregiously setup. Literally a few months previously Microsoft had started a big PR campaign that stated open-source software was a virus and enterprises used any of it at their peril. For another developer who obviously knows the difference between using GPL software and including the GPL in your own software to use a trick like this shows just how political and underhanded the debate has become. Nobody expects the Open-Source Inquisition!

Some Free Software is Worth Using

Where I take exception to Strauss' claims is the implication that open-source software should be avoided. There is a lot of good free software that is perfectly high quality and worth using. I might in particular point out that our software at is all free and is a well-used tool for earth scientists and major government labs all over the world. Our software is not GPLed, but it is free. Why? Because your tax dollars already paid for it. I can think of a lot of other excellent free software much of which I have used:

   - Mozilla (web browser)
   - CVS (source code repository)
   - Emacs (text editor)
   - Pegasus (email client)
   - Apache (best web server there is)
   - Tomcat (excellent servlet engine)
   - JBoss (excellent application server)
   - ProGuard (J2ME compactor)
   - all of Suns various Java-based tools

The list goes on and on. So where does Strauss get off suggesting free software is suspicious and should be avoided? Nowhere. It's just idle political bluster that hurts everybody and creates stigmas that shouldn't be. I look forward to the day when even the software monopolists don't feel threatened by free software.

Developer Diary · · bio · Revised 21 November 2003 · Pure Content