Open Source and William James

Matt Asay just posted an excellent note connecting Open source and William James. James noted: “True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those that we can not. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas.” Matt argues that that is why he likes open source — because it works. I can’t agree more.

I remember saying something very similar in the early days after the open source summit, when we were all first introducing people to this new term. I distinguished between free software, which is a kind of religious movement based on ethical principles, and open source as a pragmatic movement. Open source is like gravity, I said. It’s not something that you believe in. It’s something that you explore and discover, as with any other science. It’s a study of what works.

Matt makes this same argument, except contrasting open source and proprietary software. He says:

Why do I believe open source is the best way to develop, distribute, and support software? Because it works. Some may answer, “But look at Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, etc. Surely they “work” in the sense that they have been massively successful.” To this I concur, but with a caveat. Or, rather, with a statement: “at a given moment in time.”


That is, the end-to-end proprietary model makes sense, but only in the early phases of a market’s growth.

Here I have to part ways with Matt. Both open source AND proprietary software work at a given moment in time. What I’ve observed (and wrote about in The Open Source Paradigm Shift) is that openness begets innovation, which leads to commercialization, which leads to companies seeking a proprietary edge, until they go too far, close down innovation, and the cycle restarts. It seems to me that openness is characteristic of the early pre-commercial stages of a new industry when many of the participants are in it just for fun; that proprietary advantage is characteristic of the middle phase; and that openness returns in senescent commoditization; which throws open the doors to innovation, and the whole cycle repeats. Here’s a crude drawing of the last few cycles in the computer industry:

overlapping technology cycles of open/closed

It was this observation that led me to predict that Web 2.0 companies like Google and Amazon would leverage open source and open standards to build new proprietary companies. This is great unless they get too greedy and use their position to shut down innovation. “This is the thesis scrivened in delight, The reverberating psalm, the right chorale.” (Wallace Stevens) There’s a repeating cycle of open and proprietary, innovation and exploitation, driven by greed and ignorance overriding joyful exploration. But that exploration can’t be denied, and breaks out anew elsewhere once one domain get too fenced in.

The necessary, pragmatic science is to discover the optimum balance between the value we create, and the value we capture. As long as companies create more value than they capture, they create a vibrant ecosystem around them. As soon as they capture more value than they create, they stagnate, however big the bank balance they build up before that becomes apparent.