The problem with open source, Part II

To continue from yesterday, where we were discussing how corporations benefit from Linux:

Q: So, if I understand you correctly, Linux is a tool for battling the monopoly power of the big players – at least, the failed monopolists hope so? That’s really interesting, and a breath of fresh air after so much utopian Linux-promotion (or just plain old libertarian ‘no corporation will tell me what to do’ Linux-promotion.)

A: Yeah, the perception that ‘free software’ is the preserve of brilliant but withdrawn twenty-somethings working in their mother’s basement is quite mistaken. A high proportion of Linux kernel developers, for instance, are employed by large commercial concerns, and I think this is down to a recognition that completely closed standards (such as the old MS Office file formats) but also conflicting-if-otherwise-open technical standards (such as were manifest during the ‘UNIX wars’ of the mid-1980s onwards) led, in one way or another, to Microsoft’s de facto software monopoly.

I love machines (Ghost in the Shell)

Free software is politically interesting in that it isn’t reducible to a mere ethic of almsgiving (or a socialism of consumption alone), since it permits (or in the case of copyleft licences, semi-compels) code to be redistributed in a form that allows anyone to modify and incorporate it for their own ends. Undoubtedly, it’s fostered the adoption of open, non-patented technical standards to an extent that would have seemed unthinkable twenty years ago, and in consequence Microsoft, which had hitherto dubbed copylefted free software a ‘cancer’ and ‘communism’, now offers users of its Windows Server software – under a comprehensive system of technical support – the possibility of running virtualised versions of Linux.

The political price of having so much code held in common in this way, however, is that while HP and IBM might not directly control the direction of the development of, say, the Linux kernel project, the software developers employed by HP and IBM to work on Linux are ultimately beholden to their employer’s strategic interests, so in a roundabout way Linux development ultimately serves commercial rather than technical ends (a point sometimes made by OpenBSD developers concerning the quality of Linux code in general, and the Linux project’s relatively lax attitude toward security matters in particular). Perhaps we could say – although this should hardly come as news – that the importance of free software lies in the politically instructive nature of its failure: where for Richard Stallman in the ’80s free software seemed to promise something akin to the free development of each through the free development of all (albeit strictly within the sphere of software-coding), today it’s recognised by industry analysts as an integral part of the corporate IT ecosystem.

That notwithstanding, the history of free software remains almost completely unexplored by researchers of a Marxist bent, perhaps intimidated by some of the technical and legal aspects, or bemused by the sometimes seemingly right-libertarian, sometimes utopian-socialist political stance of Richard Stallman. There are exceptions, though: for some years Toni Prug has been applying Žižekian considerations to the question of intellectual property.

Corporate competition (Ghost in the Shell)

Q: Did you ever publish anything on this? I’d be interested in reading it.

A: I’ve occasionally pointed out the incoherencies of free software ideology on the relevant websites and mailing lists (leading on one occasion to a summary ban from a self-styled ‘benevolent dictator for life’) but haven’t written about ‘FLOSS’ at any length. The story of how the movement for code held and maintained in common impinged on the IT industry while ultimately proving of limited political consequence is a cautionary tale worth telling, however, and I think its outline is something like the following:

(i) IT multinationals (HP, IBM, SGI and DEC, for instance), with a huge strategic investment in developing their own versions of the UNIX operating system, find that the mutual incompatibilities these introduce is at odds with UNIX’s rationale, i.e. the benefits to gained through a common software-development interface;

(ii) Microsoft steps into the breach with its own, de facto common programming- and user interface and achieves a relative monopoly both on the desktop and in ‘backroom’, IT-infrastructure operating systems;

(iii) thus partially edged out of the server operating-system market, and realising that competition in the field of their key software products is actually bad for (their) overall business, vendors of proprietary UNIX, while not exactly relinquishing those products, nevertheless invest resources in the development of the Linux operating system, development which they can influence (through the code they are willing to donate) but not fully control;

(iv) in the field of server operating systems (although not on the desktop, where Microsoft still retains its OEM monopoly) Linux encroaches on areas where MS Windows had hitherto been strong, to such an extent that Microsoft recognises the challenge by entering into a pact with the second-largest Linux vendor, Novell, in 2006.

Spectre of capitalism (Ghost in the Shell)

I haven’t been able to research these things at the same level of depth as your own work on use-value oriented agriculture, and wonder whether I might have underestimated some of the complexities – such as failing to distinguish largesse on the part of groups of individuals within a corporation (for example DEC’s Jon Hall, who facilitated Torvalds’s use of the resources that allowed Linux to be ported to Digital’s Alpha hardware) from a strategic commitment to the development of Linux on the part of entire corporations (such as IBM’s decision to donate millions of lines of pre-existing code to the Linux 2.6 kernel, contributions which definitively consolidated Linux’s reputation as a world-class ‘enterprise-grade’ operating system).

To anyone interested in researching these questions, though, a useful place to begin might be The Daemon, the GNU & the Penguin (serialised in an earlier draft here) by Peter Salus.

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