shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Sun's Quasi-Open Source Model
10/7/1999
 
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Open Source movement should be 
blushing from head to toe by now. Its most recent admirer is Sun Microsystems, who 
has just announced that it will make the source code to its Solaris operating system 
available under something it calls a "Community Source" license. In making such a 
bold move (Solaris is their core product) Sun is embracing everything that has made the 
Open Source movement such a success. Everything, that is, except that bit about opening 
up their source code.  
 
Sun is attempting a quasi-Open Source move because while they want what Linux has 
(an army of talented developers working for free) they also want what Linux doesn't 
have (commercial control, patents on intellectual property, and a steady stream of 
income). They are trying to split the difference by creating a license which only allows 
you access to Solaris source code if you promise not to make any money from it, and only 
if you agree to co-ordinate any changes you make with Sun. In order to stave off criticism 
of these restrictions (which don't exist under real Open Source licenses), Sun has 
wrapped itself in the flag of community -- after all, what could possibly be wrong with a 
"Community Source" license?

In net-speak, "community" no longer means "a gathering of likeminded people," it is just 
a reductive variable written into every dot-com business plan. The problem with Sun's 
"Community Source" is that Open Source software is not written by communities, it is 
written by individuals -- thousands of individual developers, each sharing their work 
with the others. The difference is a subtle but important one; Sun is betting that Open 
Source software works as well as it does because of community feeling and collaboration, 
when in fact it is mostly driven by individual selfishness. In an Open Source project, 
new features come not from what a developer imagines some hypothetical client might 
possibly want to do someday, it comes from what the developer him or herself wants to do 
right now. Like a game of "Which of these things is not like the others?," commercially 
developed software is starkly different from Open Source projects: Linux exists because 
Linus Torvalds wanted a Unix clone that ran on cheap hardware, Apache exists because 
Brian Behelendorf wanted a good web server, Perl exists because Larry Wall wanted to make 
writing reports easier, Solaris exists because Sun wanted to make money.

Most of the valuable aspects of open source software -- its cleanliness in 
implementation, its compact size, its ability to run on cheap hardware -- are a direct 
result of this selfishness, since developers are making the software they want to use. 
Like the paradox of the free market, where reducing central management increases economic 
efficiency, the paradox of Open Source is that by reducing commercial control, software 
can actually improve faster. What Sun doesn't understand is that this core aspect of Open 
Source is indivisible: The thing that makes Linux so desirable for developers is the very 
thing that gives commercial software companies indigestion -- it transfers control of the 
software to the individual. There's no way to split the difference, because there's no 
difference to split.

Sun's license guts the very freedoms that drive open source adoption in the first place, 
because without real transfer of power, there is no incentive to use open source software. 
And this problem is not Sun's alone -- giants like Microsoft and Oracle will also need 
strategies for dealing with Open Source, and sooner rather than later. As with so much 
about the internet, Open Source is about removing the middleman and transferring control 
to the individual: Linux is the net's first disintermediated operating system. No matter 
how many iterations of its "Community Source" license it goes through, in the end Sun is 
going to discover that the only way to get the advantages which the Open Source movement 
enjoys is to open its source. 


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

Mail a copy of this essay:

Enter the email address of the recipient. Multiple addresses should be separated by commas.

Add your own message(optional):

Your name:(optional)

Note: Your name, and your recipient's email address, will only be used to transfer this article, and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.

Send the article URL only
Send the article as HTML
Send the article as plain text

shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source