Sunday, May 27, 2007

Power, Wealth, and Open Source (repost from 2005-01-29)

I want to make sure it is clear that these are my own thoughts and opinions and observations. While based on fact and experience, there is naturally a lot of speculation in here...

One of the big principles that feeds my desire to see open source software succeed is that centralization of power is a dangerous thing. With it one man, often influenced by others, but still one despot can cause pain and suffering in the lives of thousands or millions of people. History both ancient and modern is full of examples of this, on small scales and on large. In this age there are despots both political and economic. Consider that large companies these days control sufficient wealth and in some cases power to have an effect for good or bad on hundreds of thousands or even many many millions of people.

Earlier today Al Byers sent me an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that I found interesting and thought provoking because of personal experiences I have had with this. Here is the link:

I live in Utah, or more specifically in Utah Valley, where much of this is taking place. I know a lot of people who work for or have worked for Novell, WordPerfect, and various smaller technology companies here, some of the most notable these days being Canopy Group companies.

For a long time in Utah Valley the economic basis was fueled by software companies such as WordPerfect and Novell. There are other major economic influences here, like over 20% of the population are students, many of whom are from out of town. There have also been other forces here such as a large steel plant and such, but the software industry has been a big deal here in the past and it's decline is having a significant effect here.

Having met Ray Noorda a few times I was really surprised by the actions and direction of the Canopy group, especially by the use of their resources to try to go after more honest and hardworking corporations and individuals with legal attacks, so this explains a lot. It reminds me of a few meetings various years ago when I was working at Lineo that both Ralph Yarro and Ray Noorda attended. Ray was always very quiet and didn't seem to overly involved, almost there as an observer. Ralph has a pretty forward and overbearing personality.

Their dress is also very different. Ray's idea of dressing up seems to wearing old church clothes and black sneakers to at least be the right color. I've seen him at church and in business meetings this way. He lives in a fairly modest house, about like the one my parents live in, and doesn't drive fancy cars or anything. He regularly attends church (the same congregation where my mother-in-law and others in my wife's family attend). His family has only seen enough of them wealth to make sure they are comfortable, but he does not go after the comforts and luxuries of the world nor has he spoiled his children with such.

Ralph Yarro seems to be somewhat the opposite. I don't know him as well and haven't seen him as much but he seems to like to dress expensive, not just nice, but clearly showing money spent in both clothing and accessories.

It's amazing how the greed of one man can cause so much damage. Ray Noorda is probably the biggest proponent of business development and investment and probably the direct cause of much of the employment in Utah Valley. I think is because instead of hoarding his significant earnings from Novell he has reinvested them and helped other people get dozens of businesses off the ground. This is especially true in the software sector but also in other areas since this is largely imported cash and exported services.

Without Ralph Yarro I wonder how much better the economy would be here, and in many other places around the country and to some extend the world... I wonder how many valuable resources that have gone other places would still be here and still be more involved as a proponent of open source... Like Ransom Love the ex-CEO of Caldera Systems, that purchased SCO and changed their name and direction soon after he left. In hindsight it makes me wonder if part of his reason for leaving was that he was opposed to such open and blatant attacks on Linux and open source software in general and didn't want to be a part of it.

Even more significantly, how much impact have the SCO Group's (what used to be Caldera Systems, a Linux and open source oriented company) actions had on other potential users of and contributors to open source software? Would such significant changes have come internally without investor influence? My guess is no.

The good news is that the SCO legal threat is diminishing. I must admit I don't trust our legal system to do what is best for people in general, that really isn't their job. They are their to judge and be involved in the enforcement of the law. This leads to some really really strange things happing in the legal world sometimes, that would seem totally illogical by normal logic, but in their application of laws to the current circumstances and in the name of merciless justice somehow to make sense and even seem obligatory.

Anyway, hopefully in this case the abuse of our legal system will not succeed. And who knows, now that hopefully the corruption at the top has been removed other powers that be will let go of the tantalizing taste of the temptation of power, wealth and comfort and just let the lawsuit go. Perhaps they will even re-join the ranks of those who are putting work into moving Linux forward for their own profit and for the progress of business and society in general. And perhaps they will get into pushing forward open source softare in other domains...

And what would be the benefit of this? Software is a unique resource that hasn't really been dealt with in history. It is cheap and easy to duplicate once initially developed and can result in significant savings and improvements in efficiency for those who use it. Not that it is free or easy to use in many applications where it is most valuable, but the tool alone enables increased efficiency that would otherwise be impossible.

The result of this in our modern economy is that massive corporations and monopolies have caused serious economic confusion and unprecedented shifts in control and distribution of wealth. That wealth in this world seems to be easier and easier to leverage almost directly into power. The danger of that should be pretty clear...

The furthering of open source software can help re-balance this and put control back into the hands of those who use the software rather than them being at the mercy of monopolies that enforce their position by taking advantage of their market share to make it hard for existing users to play well with users of other software.

Open standards are good, but the industry incumbents have to adopt them as well in order for them to succeed, which often isn't in the best interest of the incumbent.

I guess that's all for now. Will be an interesting show to watch as things progress...