The Cathedral and the Bizarre

a critique of twenty years of open source

Dr Mark Tarver, 2019

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The Cathedral and the Bazaar

In 1998 Eric S. Raymond published an epochal game-changing book called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. in it he laid the foundations, methodology and aims for the open source movement. 

Before Raymond, the phrase 'open source' had a definite meaning in computing which is quite different from the sense it has now. In 1990 when you said a program was 'open source', you meant that you could read the source code; the actual code the person had written to create the program. Closed source programs did not give you that ability. Beyond that, there were no requirements on open source. In theory one could charge for open source code or place restrictions on it's use.

Raymond meant by 'open source', software licensed under liberal licenses like BSD and MIT in which the author not only made the software readable, but also effectively relinquished any creative or financial control over his creation.  Raymond's usage of the phrase was so influential that it has now transplanted the original usage.

The freeing of code from license restrictions was integral to a new methodology for developing programs.  Raymond believed that this methodology would be so effective that it would sweep non-open or closed source programs out of the market place and change the nature of society.  The methodology required that code could be freely shared between programmers through the new technology of the Internet.  Hundreds of programmers working all over the world would come together to create software collaboratively. 

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Quality and Financial Deficiency Disease

Charging Support

Forks and Abandonware

Corporation and Tax Money

Crowd Funding

Why Do Corporations Support Open Source?

Free Open Source is often Conformist

Social Groups in Open Source

Three Strands in the Open Source Movement

Where We Are Today

What Was Promised and What We Got


This was the bazaar model that Raymond in which believed.  It was to later power the development of cooperative project sharing platforms like Sourceforge and Github.

As opposed to the bazaar was the cathedral method; the traditional in-house method of closed source projects used by corporations under the close direction of project managers supervising small teams of 9-5 workers.  Raymond believed that this model would be out-competed by open source.

Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software ‘‘hoarding’’ is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p 54

The bazaar model would issue in a new era of freedom as Bob Young explains in his foreword to Raymond's book.

The success of any industry is almost directly related to the degree of freedom the suppliers and the customers of that industry enjoy......  Open-source software brings to the computer software industry even greater freedom than the hardware manufacturers and consumers have enjoyed.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p ix

Young explains that this depends crucially on removing the constraints that allow exploitation of code and adopting open source licenses.

Legally restricting access to knowledge of the infrastructure that our society increasingly relies on (via the proprietary binary-only software licenses our industry historically has used) results in less freedom and slower innovation.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p x

Programmers would be liberated to work in the way they wanted.

Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and voluntary mutual help. Hackers are naturally anti-authoritarian. Anyone who can give you orders can stop you from solving whatever problem you’re being fascinated by—and, given the way authoritarian minds work, will generally find some appallingly stupid reason to do so. So the authoritarian attitude has to be fought wherever you find it, lest it smother you and other hackers.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p 197

Because open source code would be freely shared over a large community, bugs would be far less common.

Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone. Or, less formally, ‘‘Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.’’

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p 30

Since code would be shared, the reduplication of code between competitors that came from hoarding would mean that programmers would quickly zero in on optimal solutions.  Darwinian competition would ensure that only one superfit solution to any category of problem would emerge; these programs Raymond referred to as 'category killers'.

Hence The Cathedral and the Bazaar offered an intoxicating revolutionary vision;  freedom for programmers, accelerated innovation, superfit solutions, a challenge to corporate control and more reliable software.   What's not to like?  But twenty years on, where has this revolution taken us in relation to the promises that were made?

Quality and Financial Deficiency Disease (FDD)

Now here is an unpalatable truth, twenty years on: most open source code is poor or unusable. A search through open source repositories like Sourceforge or Github will convince you of that.  If you haven't (as I have done) tried to piece together code from a repository armed only with few pages of code comments and virtually no documentation, you have not lived the Github experience.  In fact an article puts the abandonment rate of open source projects on Github at about 98% - meaning that there is no activity on 98% of projects after a year.  This has coined a phrase - abandonware.

This lesser-known fact is masked by the isolated points fallacy.  The isolated points fallacy consists in taking the high scoring points on a graph and plotting your line on the basis of them. Hence open source champions wheel out the standard examples of success - Open Office, Wordpress and Red Hat Linux (we'll look at why some of these have succeeded later) - ignoring the vast sea of floating half submerged buggy and abandoned projects (over 120,000) that litter Github.  It is the sort of technique Mugabe would have used for TV. If you're accused of starving the country, wheel out a handful of well nourished kids for people to see. 'Look, our country is fine; see how healthy these kids are'. Out in the slums the less fortunate die of cholera. 

But it isn't a physical disease like cholera that a lot of these projects are dying from - it is financial deficiency disease (FDD) due to lack of funding.

Not just the obscure projects buried on Github, but much bigger open source projects such as OpenBSD and OpenSSL have suffered from FDD. It was the HeartBleed bug that exposed the fact that OpenSSL had FDD (see HeartBleed exposes a Problem with Open Source). OpenSSL, an open source encryption programs used by millions of people to protect their credit card details over the Internet had a serious security leak which went undetected for two years.  The truth revealed that OpenSSL was seriously underfinanced with only one full time operative working on a code base of hundreds of thousands of lines of C.

 Marquess, in charge of OpenSSL, spoke about the problems of running an OS project used by millions of people.

"There should be at least a half dozen full time OpenSSL team members, not just one, able to concentrate on the care and feeding of OpenSSL without having to hustle commercial work. If you’re a corporate or government decision maker in a position to do something about it, give it some thought. Please. I’m getting old and weary and I’d like to retire someday."

After Heartbleed, OpenSSL finally got more of the funding it needed—at least for now. They currently have enough money to pay four full-time employees for three years. But a year and a half into that funding, Marquess isn’t sure what will come next.

The Ford Report on Open Source

Financial deficiency disease is a deficiency disease of open source projects analogous to scurvy, rickets or beri-beri in human beings.  It does not manifest in bleeding gums or curved bones, but in abandoned software, buggy code, poor documentation and missing support.  It is a project killer that is endemic to open source projects.

The austere facts of open source economics poke through like the bones of an undernourished cadaver when you look at some famous open source projects. In January 2014, OpenBSD entered financial crisis when OpenBSD struggled to meet the electricity bill.  After an extraordinary appeal OpenBSD was rescued by a bailout of $100,000. But the total annual revenue of this open source leader in 2015 was actually only that of a single associate professor; not exactly big potatoes. OpenBSD have recently been rescued by Microsoft.

A look at Linux Mint, a well-known Linux distro, shows that the total income from donations around 2015 was in the region of $50,000-60,000. In other words, the income by donation of two top rated open source companies pushing software used by many thousands is only scratching the income of a middle income American.

Charging Support

Raymond did see that if programmers relinquish creative control of their work and gave the sources for free, then they would be challenged by the problem of how to monetise their work. The Cathedral and the Bazaar suggests that open source programmers make money by selling support.  The model is to achieve mind-share (i.e. market dominance and general acceptance) by giving away code as open source and then use that market as a platform to offer services and support. 

Red Hat Linux is offered as a poster child of this approach.    Red Hat, for those who do not know it,  is a company that specialises in selling the operating system Linux, to people running servers that cater for many users (e.g. a web server supporting many sites). Red Hat's market is server administration and its penetration into the desktop market remains very small. It is precisely because Linux is complex, demanding and sometimes quirky that there exists a market for Red Hat to administer it at the server end. Programmers can sell services to businesses if what they produce is sufficiently complex or difficult that people cannot use it easily. But even so, despite being launched on the wave of the dot com book, after its quarter century, the Linux provider Red Hat was still 1/40th of the size of Microsoft and was recently bought out by IBM.

But if the product is highly useful, easy to use, intuitive, reliable and well documented, then giving it away as open source is commercial suicide because there is little or no market value for services: the market value is in the product. And here is the irony, because software that is useful, easy to use, intuitive, reliable and well documented is precisely the paradigm of what software should be.  Good software is properly documented, does not break and does not require hand-holding to use it.

John Gruber made the same point.

Talented programmers who work long full-time hours crafting software need to be paid. That means selling software. Remember the old open source magic formula — that one could make money giving away software by selling “services and support”? That hasn’t happened — in terms of producing well-designed end user software — and it’s no wonder why. In Raymond’s own words, the goal is "software that works so well, and is so discoverable to even novice users, that they don’t have to read documentation or spend time and mental effort to learn about it." [quote from Eric S. Raymond].

It’s pretty hard to sell “services and support” for software that fits that bill. The model that actually works is selling the software itself. This is politically distasteful to open source zealots, but it’s true — and it explains the poor state of usability in open source software.

 Ronco Spray-On Usability

This was again written in 2004.  Here we are in 2015.  

The current business model is recipe for failure.  That's the conclusion of Peter Levine, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm that backed Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Box as startups.....Levine says the conventional open source business model is flawed: Open source companies that charge for maintenance, support, warranties and indemnities for an application or operating system that is available for free simply can't generate enough revenue.

Why the Open Source Business Model is a Failure,

Consequently the standard open source economic model does not favour good, easy-to-use, well-documented software as popularly claimed. What it does favour is technically complex software that needs support or buggy software that gets dropped if the developer loses interest and is not paid.  The fact that an old article from 2004 is still relevant in 2015 and today is an indictment of the inability of the open source movement to progress past Raymond's original idea. 

Forks and Abandonware

Most open source is barely usable and empirical inspection of Github will show that to be true.  Open source users will admit that a lot of open source is buggy abandonware. However they argue that this really does not matter since some small significant fraction is really quite good and that's the stuff we should use. Hence the argument is 'Yes; a lot of open source is awful but that's not important because you don't have to use it.'

However the problem is that the open source user may not stumble on this magical fraction and the invisible iceberg of buggy, ill-conceived open source lies submerged ready to rip out the bottom of your leisure time and send that lazy weekend to the bottom. In fact, open source uses massive amounts of user time trawling through defunct and buggy applications and posting to forums in search of patches and bugfixes. open source zealots tend to be blind to this. They treat the sunk costs of their learning through hard experience as zero, which is wrong. The cost of having to deal with software which should never have been issued is significant - even if you finally junk it. Bad software will injure your leisure time and your pocket. 

But above all this is the sheer waste of human effort in terms of the production of rotting software in repositories.  Github, as anybody who has toured it knows, is a graveyard for software projects, many duplicating the efforts of each other.  Many of these projects died of FDD.  It certainly wasn't supposed to be like that.  Eric .S. Raymond envisaged that open source would liberate programmers from the toil of reproducing each others work because code would be shared.

Imagine no longer having to spend your internal staff’s time and salaries on rewriting, testing, and distributing new binaries for each new kernel as it comes out. You certainly have better things to do with all that skill.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p 165

But anybody who has kept pace with the history of Linux (and particularly the sad story of their audio systems) knows that this is exactly what goes on in Linux.  Linux is beset by forks and reduplication of effort beyond that which any reputable closed source company would find acceptable.

But let's look at the success stories.

Corporation and Tax Money

Open source weaknesses are hidden behind poster stories like Red Hat.  There are others like OpenOffice, Emacs, Linux, and SBCL. A lot of latent quality comes from these funded ventures.  So let's look at them.

Open Office was derived from Star Office which was the product of StarDivision and Sun Microsystems. It was not put together by a hacker living in his mom’s spare bedroom, but by a team of professionally qualified, highly paid and very able software engineers who were working for a company that made and sold products according to a classic capitalist model. Without the input from that team and the funding from that model there would be no Star Office. Star Office became open source and thus Open Office purely because Sun were willing to support a loss leader in order to acquire part of the Microsoft market. The open source model never supported Star Office and I doubt that it would have ever done so. 

Emacs was supported financially by people working at the MIT AI Lab, which means that it was funded by Uncle Sam. It was not invented by Richard Stallman contrary to popular myth, although he did grab the sources and improved them and tried successfully to claim as much credit as he could. It’s real cost in market terms was effectively many thousands of tax dollars.

SBCL is at the moment the leading open source Common Lisp platform. But it was, and is, deeply indebted to CMU CL from which it was a fork. CMU CL was again an Uncle Sam project being funded originally by DARPA and the guys who developed it were top class professionals who were paid a lot of money to do it. Sans CMU CL, SBCL would not have got off the ground.

Linux is of course, mostly a copy of Unix, it is deeply unoriginal, being based on ideas going back to the time of the Vietnam War. These ideas were in turn evolved within Bell Labs by its creators who were also well-paid professionals. Linus Torvalds copied an idea whose basis had been funded by university and corporation money and without that basis there would have been no Linux. Early Linuxes were dreadful.  My Ubuntu version of 2005 was an absolute crock that wasted the plastic on which it was distributed. Ubuntu was itself a loss-making personal hobby of a entrepreneur who had so many millions that he could afford to run the parent company, Canonical, at a loss for years.  The situation in 2019 is better than 2005, but the Linux desktop still lags behind Windows and the interface looks stuck in the 90s. 

These implementations owe their existence to models of funding and development to which the open source community are either allergic or indifferent.

Crowd Funding

Crowd funding has recently emerged as a potential solution to funding projects.  Does crowd funding solve the economic problems of open source? Not really; certainly not for most projects.

Most funded projects on Kickstarter fall into the category of gadgets and games. There are a few software projects that have attracted significant funding (like Light Table) but not that many. The average successful Kickstarter funding of about $5,000 will not carry any business much beyond the first quarter of its first year.  The clue is the title - a kickstart is there to get a project started, not to sustain it.  Crowd funding is not an adequate long-term income model.

Free Open Source is often Conformist

Though a lot of fuss is made about how open source is innovative, mostly it isn't.  An awful lot of popular open source is inferior reverse-engineered copies of existing commercial software (Gimp, OpenOffice etc). That's not an accident.  The quickest way to achieve popularity in open source is to copy some successful closed-source application.  Innovation is hard; it requires time and brains.  Stanislav notes that open source has this narrowing effect of reproducing accepted ideas.

I predict that no tool of any kind which too greatly amplifies the productivity of an individual will ever be permitted to most developers.  In this they shall follow in the maximally deskilled assembly-line footsteps of their grandparents.  “They’ll time your every breath.” As for the “free software” world, it eagerly opposes industrial dogmas in rhetoric but not at all in practice.  No concept shunned by cube farm hells has ever gained real traction among the amateur masses.

Consider Linux: the poster child of successful free software.  It is a knockoff of a 1970s operating system well past its sell-by date. This is because a herd simply cannot innovate, whether for fun or for profit. Every innovative work of mankind has been the product of one – sometimes two, rarely three – minds.  And never the work of a herd.  No mathematical theorem, no enjoyable novel, no work of art of any importance, have ever been produced by a herd.   I fail to see why innovative software ought to play by a different set of rules.

Where Lisp Fails: at Turning People into Fungible Cogs

If open source programmers do innovate and their innovation is good then its just as likely to be swept away from them by the corporations who have the capital to exploit it.

Open and Weak vs Closed and Strong

This was first observed as long ago as 2004 by Matthew Thomas.

Proprietary software vendors typically make money by producing software that people want to use. This is a strong incentive to make it more usable. (It doesn’t always work: for example, Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe software sometimes becomes worse but remains dominant through network effects. But it works most of the time.)

With volunteer projects, though, any incentive is much weaker. The number of users rarely makes any financial difference to developers, and with freely redistributable software, it’s near-impossible to count users anyway. There are other incentives — impressing future employers, or getting your software included in a popular OS — but they’re rather oblique.

Why Free Software has Poor Usability, and How to Improve It

Here FDD creeps in.  Somebody makes a free program that because it is free, displaces it closed source competitors which may be superior.  It survives because it is just good enough to be usable.  A free bad program can be just good enough for people to want to use it in preference to a costed close source solution that provides financial incentives to maintain.  Eric S. Raymond praises these open source works as 'category killers'.

Some very successful projects become category killers; nobody wants to homestead anywhere near them because competing against the established base for the attention of hackers would be too hard. People who might otherwise found their own distinct efforts end up, instead, adding extensions for these big, successful projects. The classic category killer example is GNU Emacs; its variants fill the ecological niche for a fully-programmable editor so completely that no competitor has gotten much beyond the one-man project stage since the early 1980s. Instead, people write Emacs modes.

That's ironic, because a lot of people think that Emacs is outdated, but like Linux because it is open source and widely used it is likely to survive.  Free, widely known, derivative and mediocre can displace sophisticated, innovative, costly and good.

Why Do Corporations Support Open Source?

Corporations like Microsoft were initially afraid of open source as a stealer for their products.  Microsoft were very concerned about Linux as a competitor to Windows.  Thus in 2002 Tech Report wrote.

Behind the war of words, analysts say, is evidence that Microsoft is increasingly concerned about Linux and its growing popularity. The Unix-like operating system "has clearly emerged as the spoiler that will prevent Microsoft from achieving a dominant position" in the worldwide server operating-system market, IDC analyst Al Gillen concludes in a forthcoming report.

While Microsoft's overall operating-system market leadership is by no means in jeopardy, Linux's continued gains make it harder for Microsoft to further its core plan for the future, Microsoft.Net.

Why Microsoft is Wary of Open Source

As desktop Linux disintegrated into a welter of forks and abandonware, Microsoft relaxed; it was safe.  But now Microsoft and other corporations like Google positively embrace open source.  Why?

They embrace it because open source allows them to monetise work without paying for it.  So corporations use open source and discard it when it does not serve their purpose.  Chris Hoffman observes.

Google doesn’t really care about Android as a full open-source project, either, which is why more and more parts of the “Android Open Source Project” (or “AOSP”) are being left behind. Google wants to keep Android open so it’s easy for manufacturers to customize, but open source applications like the keyboard and dialler are becoming more and more outdated. On a consumer Android device, Google just bundles its own closed source keyboard, dialler, and other apps. Google seems committed to an Android open-source core, but not an entire open-source operating system people can use without Google’s software and services. After all, improving the Android Open Source Project just helps Amazon’s Fire OS, a competitor to Google’s Android devices. What’s the point of that?

The Downsides of Open Source

John Mark indicts open source as a vehicle for positive social change.

When we were but wee lads and lasses on the forefront of this thing we called free software and eventually open source, we knew that this was dangerous stuff. It was destined to set fire to an entire industry, undermining entrenched monopoly powers and establishing a more equitable approach to building wealth around the tools that would power humanity in the 21st century. It was about the democratization of software and would smash what we then called the “digital divide”. That premise was entirely false. The crux of this essay is thus: not only did open source not stem or stall the redistribution of wealth and power upwards, but rather it aided and abetted the redistribution of wealth and power upwards. To be an open source proponent at this time without acknowledging this very real and most unfortunate consequence is to be a cog in a much larger machine; a stooge; a very useful idiot.

Why Open Source Failed.

Which brings us to one of the offshoots of the open source movement - the dislike of effective copyright and ownership. This was integral to the open source model that Raymond projected. But copyright law exists to protect innovators from companies like Microsoft who would otherwise exploit their work and give nothing to the innovator. It is the function of law, properly conceived, to act as the great leveller, allowing the weak to stand next the strong under the protection of law. Remove the protection of law and the Golden Rule applies; he who has the most gold makes the rules.

Prior to the open source movement, companies like Microsoft and Google had to spend millions of dollars on R&D to keep up. To have a market model where innovators who cannot capitalise their ideas, freely share their best ideas and code with the corporations who can take advantage of them is great for corporations. Open source programmers became self-basting turkeys for the corporate ovens.

Social Groups in Open Source

A small group of genuinely idealistic and creative people, often young, fall for the claims about freedom and the battle against corporate control made by open source advocates.  We can call them the givers.  These young people are mainly ignorant of the failures of the movement and are generally exploited until they burn out.   They often power significant projects.  When they burn out, they are replaced or the project dies.  This model of using people was acknowledged right from the beginning with a sly wink to Linus Torvalds from Eric S. Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

In fact, I think Linus’s cleverest and most consequential hack was not the construction of the Linux kernel itself, but rather his invention of the Linux development model. When I expressed this opinion in his presence once, he smiled and quietly repeated something he has often said: “I’m basically a very lazy person who likes to get credit for things other people actually do.

This model of using people cited in The Cathedral and the Bazaar is now a recognised problem as Why Open Source Developers are Burning Out explains.  The model has far more in common with C19 exploitation of human capital than the supposed freedom that open source was supposed to bring.

There's a harmless group of people that we can call hobbyists.  These people swap code and Linux hacks and patches as a way of hanging out and interacting with their peer group. 

There's a larger group of not-so-harmless people than the givers who are driven by greed for free stuff and a sense of entitlement. We can call these the takers. Takers are generally abusive if their entitlement is challenged; because to criticise the open source model is to take away their intellectual candy and the result is a tantrum. Amongst this larger group are a smaller group of DRM crackers and pirates.   In nearly all open source projects, they outnumber the givers. Michael 'Monty' Widenius, an open source advocate, acknowledges the problem.

"The whole problem with not having to [pay] is [that] the open-source movement doesn't go forward if nobody is prepared to pay. You actually make it harder for new companies to form around open source," he said.

"The more people are using it and, in these cases, abusing the whole idea of open source by not paying back either with development or money to help projects, it is actually destroying open source."

Open Source: its True Cost and Where it's Going Awry

There's a small group of people, the elite, who gain serious money from the open source movement and persuading people to sign up for it.  This includes corporations, venture capitalists and the small number of technophiles who work for them as well as shills for the open source movement who command fees for speaking engagements or for organising events.  

Three Strands in the Open Source Movement

If we bring this all together we can perceive three strands to the Open Source Movement.

1.  The social and ethical narrative.   The ethical narrative comes from Richard Stallman and is mainly concerned with the moral evil of closed source (we'll look at him next).   The social side from Raymond is concerned with the supposed liberating effects of open source, the challenge to corporations and the freeing of programmers from control.  Most of this is bogus; Neal Alexander nails it well.

Open Source is at its best when it is simply a hobbyist collective which provides free entertainment, education and tools to the general public; additionally benefiting technology by freeing it from the capitalist profitability requirement (despite still suffering from the same general dependency on social popularity).

"Open source as a mechanism to achieve a more equitable society" was always a form of pretence driven by hidden resentment and compensatory revolutionary personas. The free software movement corrupted itself further by developing into a religion and enforcing moral compliance through persecution. They managed to convince several generations of hackers that they should expect and demand that all software be collectivized and freely available, without any regard to how this model of labour actually fits into the larger economic system. The problem is many of these people will never be happy, suffering increasing levels of burnout and open resentment, because the forced charity has sucked all the goodwill and fun out the system by demanding moral obedience.

Shen Forum 

2.  The technological narrative.  This is concerned with enabling remote cooperation between programmers.  This is a success story.  Github and SourceForge are examples.  However most of these projects die of FDD because of the failure of the next narrative.

3.  The economic narrative.   Here was the real problem.  Open source was introduced without having any workable economic model behind it.  People like Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman had no business experience.  In the early years proponents blagged it, saying that you can give code away and make money.  This attitude floated scores of companies and was partly responsible for the dot com boom.  The collapse of that boom coincided with the realisation that this model did not work.  This remains the source of financial deficit disease for many OS projects.

Business people have caught on, but it has taken a very long time for programmers to realise the economic narrative does not work.  Developers have since struggled with trying to retrofit some economic model onto open source and this has not been easy.  Imagine you set out to build a plane but actually didn't bother with the engines because you thought the wind would carry it.  Then further down the line you think 'Wow, I need an engine'.  Then there is enormous struggle to place an engine because the design never allowed for such a thing. 

The prevalence of financial deficit disease is the main reason why open source has not matched Raymond's expectation that closed source would be wiped out.

No closed-source developer can match the pool of talent the Linux community can bring to bear on a problem. Very few could afford even to hire the more than 200 (1999: 600, 2000: 800) people who have contributed to fetchmail!

Perhaps in the end the open-source culture will triumph not because cooperation is morally right or software ‘‘hoarding’’ is morally wrong (assuming you believe the latter, which neither Linus nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms race with open-source communities that can put orders of magnitude more skilled time into a problem.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar p 54

That might be true.  But if open source cannot generate the billions that closed source companies can put into their work, then Raymond's dicta turn out to be empty.  That's why the HeartBleed bug occurred in defiance of his rule that Many Eyeballs Make All Bugs Shallow.  There weren't many eyeballs because nobody was being paid to watch the stove.  As Richard Gabriel said in Worse is Better

The Right Thing and Two Shillings will buy you a cup of tea. 

Where We Are Today

Closed source is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Closed source did not die and software corporations did not shrivel up and die; instead they did rather well and as it stands will do even better from open source in the future.  In fact, closed source is riding on the back of open source as the 451 group found.

In 2008, the 451 Group analysed 114 vendors in open source and found the following.

  • The majority of vendors analysed utilised some form of commercial licensing to distribute, or generate revenue from, open source software.
  • Half of the vendors assessed in their report were combining code developed via open source projects with software developed out-of-sight of open source project members (i.e. closed source).
  • Vendors using hybrid development and licensing models were balancing higher development and marketing costs with the ability to increase revenue-generation opportunities from commercially licensed software.
  • Ad hoc support services were the most widespread source of revenue for open-source related vendors, used by nearly 70% of the vendors assessed in their report, but they represent the primary revenue stream for fewer than 8% of open-source-related vendors.

Hence open source is being used to attract punters who are then being offered either proprietary code or to a lesser degree services as an income generator.  Today code is moving the cloud and subscription service seems the new model. 

In business terms open source has become a loss leader.   Obviously if you are basing your business model on a loss leader you need a winner up your sleeve somewhere which is why the 451 Group titled their report Open Source Is Not a Business Model.  Open source companies keep a winner up their sleeves.  Github, the sacred burial place for open source projects, runs its site on closed source software.  Apple runs OS/X on open source but keeps the parts it wants closed.

The corporations have won out handsomely with open source, being able to dip into the pond without any obligation to return.  If there has been a casualty of the open source revolution it is the small start-up company offering development tools.  These companies are forced from the outset to open source their work to satisfy the programmer demand for free stuff.  Start-ups often don't have the capital to sustain such largesse, nor the time they need to build up mindshare to the point where their contribution could sustain itself on support and services. 

This is where the corporation steps in.  Google and Microsoft run their software on millions of computers.  These corporations have mindshare built in, and this together with vast funding, gives them a great advantage in monetising open source. 

What Was Promised and What We Got

Raymond's essay combined with the growth of the Internet to change the way that software is produced.  We cannot return to the world that existed before 1998.  But the world that we are in does not conform to Raymond's expectations either.  Let's tick off what was hoped for compared to what we actually got.

  • Open source did not contribute to the distribution of wealth and power away from the wealthy and the powerful, it ended by enriching the wealthy and the powerful. 
  • It did not end closed source.  Closed source still makes serious money for Microsoft, Google, Apple (and Github).
  • It did not end the costly reduplication of human effort by favouring the evolution of the fittest.  Instead it produced a graveyard of dead software; the largest sink of wasted human labour in history - bigger than even the Mao's Great Leap Forward or the Stalin's building of the White Sea Canal.
  • It did not reward innovation.  The most successful products of open source are knockoffs of old ideas; Linux included.
  • It did not lead to more reliable software.  Because of FDD, many projects are abandoned with bugs.
  • It did not free creative people.  Rather it enslaved many creative programmers, urging them to work for free until they burnt out and then replacing them.
  • It made it hard for small development companies to get off the ground.

However it did

  • Reduce the opportunity cost for corporations wanting to create development software.
  • Reduce the opportunity cost for programmers writing bespoke solutions for businesses.  These programmers use open source libraries.  Note a lot of these programmers actually work for large companies or corporations.

  • Help create a generation of takers that believed that all code should be open source and embraced open source as a religion.   Online bullying of dissent began in forums.  A large number of believers then traded 'code' for 'digitisable media' and the most active of those went in for DRM cracking and piracy.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar coincided with the dot com boom that made a few people very rich and wiped out many more. Eric S. Raymond started a popular movement, but in the process lost the point and direction of what was promised.  Of course this is nothing new.  The early Christians, the French revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks all engineered movements designed to free people and all of them ended out of control and being oppressive.  The question is, can we liberate the amazing technology of open source and the Internet and use it to benefit the creatives in our society?  In my next essay Free As in Do as You're Told.  I'll retrace some crucial steps in the arguments and where it went right and where it went wrong in the person of Richard Stallman.