Three Little Pigs and the Economic Incentive Trap

Posted 11 Jun 2001 at 15:58 UTC by stuart Share This

GPL and Closed source have philosophical and legal considerations in many areas. This article is intended to invite discussion on core financial consequences of such choices in a personal and practical environment.

We recently had a partner here ask one of our directors for help with a certain Linux project. The task was implementing a remote backup on another machine, which required some confidence with the "tar" command and a little bit of futzing with SCP and some SSH files. The director was reticent and put the partner off repeatedly. The matter came to my attention after some consternation on the part of the partner who had asked for help. This same partner is highly qualified in other areas and had been spending a bit of his time assisting in Windows installations at client sites. While this has struck some of us as "off" GPL values, we had considered it "money" to bolster his numbers and had not complained too much. However, this incident weighed in on the minds of our staff and as of this weekend I felt I could explain the "nature of the beast" in practical layman's terms regarding the current GPL vs. Microsoft debate. Will you permit me?

Let us imagine a certain task needs to be executed repeatedly and can be readily accomplished using free software running under Linux and call it "Task A". As in any task, there is a certain amount of learning required to execute it. There is also a certain amount of money that people would pay you to execute it for them; this amount of money is equal to what you could pay someone else to achieve the same results with or without using Linux. If you learn how to do Task A, you become a resource for others to train them how to do Task A, or you can sell your experience doing Task A for others. However, if you choose to pay someone else to do Task A, or you do it yourself using a non-GPL technology, you are receiving in return the Results from Task A, not the understanding required to execute Task A. In essence you are paying to postpone the consequences of not knowing how to do Task A.

There are three methods one can use to get from ground-zero to Task A, similar to building a house of straw, sticks, or bricks. If I need something done and buy a proprietary piece of software on a proprietary operating system to do it, this buys me a little time- time I would have had to spend learning and implementing the technology myself. Over time, I am forced to upgrade to add features or stay current with the industry, so I must buy this again and again. I do not learn, but I pay more money; I exchange 'money' for 'not enough time'. This is decay at its finest- I am a slave of my need and lack of knowledge and have built a house of straw; one in which my brain atrophies and my dependency on forces outside of myself increases.

If I instead choose to implement Linux and have someone else do Task A in a GPL environment, I am at least treading water. I buy myself the time to later study and learn the process of achieving Task A. However, I am none the wiser and must still continue to pay my "guru" to be smart for me. While no one will force me to upgrade to "Linux 2.7" and order me to buy more hardware and new versions of software, I am still unable to sell my knowledge of Task A and reap the financial benefits. I have a house of sticks; a reasonable choice of building material, but ultimately the foundation is outside of my control.

When I choose to become responsible for my tools in the execution of my responsibilities, I must choose to learn how to do Task A. I may pay a little more in Time, but I reap knowledge that I can apply to repeated execution of Task A. I become able to teach, and to adapt to the needs of future variants of Task A. I may employ a teacher, but what I gain is not the results of Task A, but the foundation of knowledge required to become more versatile and more productive in my environment in support of a Task A. If my software breaks, I fix it myself. I do not wait to reach my guru, I do not call a 1-900 number, I know what I am doing. This is a house of bricks. I am solid and confident, able to teach, competent at my job. In the two preceding cases, one continues to spend but does not acquire the ability to sell. Here, one becomes not only knowledgeable, but productive in an economic capacity.

This simpleminded approach leads to some simpleminded logical tautologies and conclusions:

1. Long-term dependency upon forces outside one's control reduces one's ability to accomplish tasks, and in the long-run, one's ability to think in relevant terms.

2. What proprietary operating systems and software vendors are actually selling is time to postpone the consequences for not knowing how to do tasks oneself.

3. One can purchase "time" only in the sense of putting off a need to think, fueling a cycle that creates dependency on forces outside one's control.

When one steps back from this, you have to wonder why there is any feud at all between Linux-land and Microsoft-Land. However, it does expose the underlying motivations for all of the propaganda afoot. How many Linux people will call a technical support rep and complain that their "Cup Holder" is broken? How many Linux people will call a technical support line and ask the vendor if it is "okay" that their monitor is smoking? Umm.. maybe... None? Is that what Linux people want, to pander and to support products for the lowest common denominator? Isn't that the only business that Microsoft is in... thinking services for people that just "don't get" computers? People that, moreover, don't want to get it? Perhaps Linux People should rethink what they really want and consider compassion for some poor dolt in MS tech support answering calls from Joe Bozo who is using his mouse as a foot pedal.

Yet, even as Linux-land looks for liberation, evolution, and cooperation in an open society, it is not logically defensible for any Big Bad Wolf to muddy the waters with propaganda. Clearly, Microsoft has a revenue stream that it needs to maintain on behalf of its stockholders- sales of thinking services to the dependent. That does not mean that ignorance is a virtue or that it should be promoted, especially at the cost of making devils out of freedom of thought and freedom to share; it certainly should serve as no justification of the economic merits in enslaving anyone into such ignorance permanently. However, are there some places that Linux just doesn't want to tread? Or, perhaps, will there always be a need for a "middle layer" of the most basic technical support of the most limited tools that some company will have to provide? Most of us choose to learn our trade quietly and with perseverance so that as the world converts to "free" out of economic advantage, that we will remain in the driver's seat for the sake of posterity. However, is it possible that both sides will realize that they can, in some sense, be on the same team, serving a common human need, without playing the psychological equivalent of Mortal Kombat in the open market? How would that work?


True, but what are the consequences?, posted 12 Jun 2001 at 15:46 UTC by ber » (Master)

Stuard's article describes different ways to solve a computer problem from a personal point of view. His observations have a lot of truth to them. However there are no clear conclusions drawn upon his considerations.

One obvious incentive would be to always try to learn to be very independent when building computer solutions. This is just not possible. Humanity has survived, because we were able to come up and establish schemes to divide the labour that needs to be done and specialise.

This also holds true for computer-knowledge. Nobody can write a GNU-System alone.

On the other hand, people are way too much on the needle of special software and its vendors. We need more freedom and this is economically feasable because we now get more competition. So if you buy a software solutions, demand it to be done with Free Software.

Another lesson is learning. Software and Computer skills are very important in the modern world as computers are the main tools used for all areas in human life. I agree with Stuart that most people learn too much detail knowledge without the underlying principles. The latter knowledge will be longer lasting, but you cannot have it without learning some boring details. Conclusion: Get a good teacher for computers and make sure that this person teaches theoretic knowledge not related a special product.

GPL? , posted 13 Jun 2001 at 18:33 UTC by carmstro » (Journeyer)

I don't think that this has anything to do with the GPL. It's more like the difference between paying someone to do Task A or doing it yourself. It may not even be easier to *learn* to do Task A with software whose source is free, but it is definitely easier to mold it to your needs (hack it).

Good Points, posted 14 Jun 2001 at 07:11 UTC by stevegt » (Journeyer)

While the article threw me a little at first with the equation of GPL == open source community values, once I got into it I recognized where it was going.

I think it makes some good points about the "buy versus FTP" methods of procuring software to support your needs, whether you are a person or an organization.

The way I've usually described it is like this:

  • If you use open-source software, you own your shop. You have control over the foundation of your business processes.
  • If you buy closed-source software, you pay someone to own your shop. You give someone a chunk of your revenue, and in the same transaction grant them the authority to steer, control, and sell to your competitors your most intimate internal business processes -- the procedures and algorithms which store, process, and move the data that is the nervous system of your organization; which directly determine the productivity of your organization's members; and which are major factors in the quality and cost of your product.
The only excuse for the latter behavior is time -- time to market. But, and I think this is the bedrock of the open source movement's future, eventually the closed-source internal processes will hang like a dead albatross around the neck of any organization which uses closed- source code for anything other than a stopgap.

Those who do not see closed-source solutions as "temporary", as necessary evils, and who do not implement a policy to shed them continually, will not survive. Their competitors will make sure of it.

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