Open Source Is Driven By Profit, Not by Egalitarianism or Selflessness

Some fellow commenters at distrowatch operate under the childish delusion that open source is some kind of equalizer against corporate interests. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I pointed out earlier this morning, most of the changes to the Linux 2.6 kernel have come directly from corporations or people who work for them.

Corporations don’t do this with any other intention but to further their own self interests. Whether they do it to make Linux work or work better with their hardware or to make more general improvements in some area, they’re doing it because it affects their bottom line. IBM, Oracle, HP, Intel, and so many other companies have become big players in open source because they can monetize it. If there were no profit potential, they wouldn’t be as involved as they are.

Sun Microsystems were very candid and upfront about their reasons for licensing their software under various open source licenses. They did it to sell support and hardware. They didn’t have the best possible business model for monetizing their open source software (hence the sale to Oracle) but they were very clear that open source had everything to do with trying to expand their business and much less to do with some sort of selflessness or egalitarianism (though some of their people tried to suggest otherwise).

I think where some people really miss the boat in trying to distinguish between open source and proprietary software as it relates to corporations is that these are two separate coins rather than two sides of the same one. Companies exist to make profits whether they participate in open source or keep their own code closed up. Neither side is really about “control” or oppression, but about maximizing revenue streams and keeping costs low. In that sense, there’s zero difference between closed and open source shops except the part about whether their code is obtainable or not.

Companies are no different from the individuals who work in them. Everyone gets up and goes to work because there’s something in it for them. Everyone. That includes “selfless” types like monks and nuns because they, too, are working for some kind of reward whether it’s financial or spiritual, in this world or in the next. A nun gets up in the morning for the same reason a tycoon does. There’s no difference. Take away profit or spiritual rewards and both will find something else that will provide them with more than their respective starting points. People always do what’s in their own self interest, and only sacrifice their own interests when that’s actually in their interests to do so.

Open source is only egalitarian in the sense that anyone can participate and (usually) the best ideas end up rising to the top. That doesn’t change what I wrote above about self-interests. Lone wolf programmers who contribute do so to fill their own needs or for back-patting that accompanies doing things which benefit others. Those are rewards. Without them, few sane people would bother.

While there are many open and closed projects driven by lone wolves, companies involved in open source or closed source drive most of the innovation in the software world and are the leaders in the direction things go. Not because they’re inherently evil or controlling, particularly in relation to “ambitionless” or “selfless” (ha) individual programmers, but because they have the resources to drive innovation and are driven to do things the market — their customers — desire. Nothing at all to do with controlling customers, but filling others’ needs and trying to create more demand.

It’s time for the proponents of open source who use these vapid arguments against “corporate interests” to stop making fools of themselves. Open source would be a joke were it not for corporate interests and the resources they’ve poured into making open source better.

It’s also time for me to shake the dust off my feet at distrowatch. Those who want to worship RMS can do so if they choose. I appreciate the contributions he’s made to free/open source — I’m posting this from within emacs running Linux with all the usual GNU-age accompanying my current distro (despite my attempts to replace as much of it as possible with BSD/MIT-licensed alternatives). But, as I wrote yesterday and asked again this morning, he can’t be the father of something that already existed before you people say he fathered it.

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Think about it.

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