Are we mis-selling 'open source'?


I am currently re-reading an oldish book on post-Piagetian child brain development. It has proved to be a real thought provoker, ironically for me not so much about young children but about the way adults think when you get the communication wrong. Hence the title of the article.

Specifically I am thinking about our attempts to explain the nature and importance of open source Software to people who have barely heard of it.

But first let's dip into the world of a child as described in the book.

As a child develops so does his or her language. It starts with the naming of things, so a dog may be pointed to and named as a bow-wow. At the same time a principle of exclusivity develops, by this I mean bow-wows remain bow-wows not cats; the two categories cannot thereafter be exchanged.

Next the child develops grammar to go with words and thus can start to play with reason and logic often with surprising results. Below is a famous experiment:

Give a child four red flowers and three white flowers then ask the following:
'Do I have more flowers or more red flowers?'
If you are about five years old the answer will be unswervingly 'red flowers'. Nice!

The traditional interpretation of the error is that the child cannot yet differentiate between the parent-set and the subset (a failure to de-centre in the jargon), but re-evaluation of the work indicates that the problem is one of mis-communication between the adult questioner and the child respondent. A second more successful question is described at the foot of this article for those that are interested.*

Essentially as explained in the book, the error arose because adults, especially ones who know what they are talking about, over emphasise the logical content of language in communication and become desensitised to the non-logical-non-linguistic cues which can override all else.

It turns out the five year olds would give you the right answer... if they knew what you wanted!* As adults we make fewer such errors, especially if the language stresses words appropriately but if we get lost in the argument we soon switch to other clues to get the 'sense' of what is being said.

I think that the above snippets are exactly relevant to our attempts to explain the free, open source software concept to potential customers, something that seems to be a pre-amble to most sales pitches and which I suspect is mistaken.

Explaining the GPL

I have sat through countless (ok half a dozen) presentations where the concepts of free, open source software and the GPL have been explained expertly and professionally to an audience of intelligent folk who procure and use computing technology in schools, colleges and businesses.

I often have looked at their expressions but never really placed them until I re-read this little book. Yes, it's a class of youngsters who got lost early and are now scavenging for clues from the speaker.

They are lost because of an exclusivity error. Software (in their heads) is a bow wow not a cat. Their software has top level properties exemplified by secret workings, restrictive licencing and high cost. open source is being described with top level properties of open workings, unrestrictive (to their way of thinking) licences and zero cost.

This is simply too much to take in

Thus the exclusivity error gets the audience lost early on in the talk so they rapidly enter the child's world of the red and white flowers; reason starts to be overwhelmed by other clues.

You can tell this has happened when you talk to listeners afterwards. If the speaker is good they will have absorbed all sorts of 'positives' but they retain a low-level anxiety about just what is this open source stuff? How do you make money? Can it really be free and good? Is it the same thing as Windows?

I think we fail to communicate the nature of open source Software as a result. My experience of non-FOSS experts who are 'interested in this Linux stuff they have heard of' is that they grasp the idea of 'free' and can understand in a formal way 'read and modify the code'. The former is undifferentiated from 'free' as in Google Earth or Skype software and the latter is outside any experience they can relate to.

There are two responses to this conundrum.

  1. stop mentioning open source at all
  2. Try a different approach.

Lets' start with the first.

Embedded Linux approach

There is so much embedded Linux around now that it would be very list-like to go into just where it is. Suffice to say 'out of sight out of mind'. In the consumer world that approach suits the likes of Nokia, Palm, TomTom, Netgear, Mororola, Amazon and Sony very well.

All of the fore-mentioned come only with Windows PC utility software as if to emphasise the absence of Linux.

Thus, for embedded Linux in branded devices there is no need to change anything to do with the purchasing model learned at a very young age. It amounts to 'Your desirable object for only xxx exclusive from yyy, amaze your friends, be the envy of others!'

This approach certainly spreads open source software throughout the world, into every technical nook and cranny.

But we would like people to elect to use FOSS... for all sorts of reasons...not least ego.

Cyber Psychology

There is another way of getting the audience to get the 'right answer'.

Dog for Dog model

In the software marketing world creating an object out of components that then becomes available for exclusive identification is an art. Take Microsoft Exchange or Sharepoint, they are bundles of bits that become a 'thing' in itself.

The thing created may be not very good, but even though the user does not understand them they feel they know them through their object label and will start to attribute properties to that object. It helps if they are given the properties to attribute by good marketing!

If you then want to present an open source alternative to that object, it too needs to be an object in the same category whose properties can be compared.

In other words, if Sharepoint is a dog (Poodle) then OSS needs to be a dog too (Rottweiler).

This is the approach taken by Open Office. It is easy to say to a potential convert from MS Office, 'It's the same thing really, just that it's free..go on try it'. They know they are both dogs as it were. This is great, but the equivalent open source 'Exchange' to MS Sharepoint is simply not going to happen.

This problem occurs over and over. Proprietarists love names and products for the good reason that the object is predefined for the consumer who can then buy 'off the shelf'. Only the knowledgeable and confident can build their own definition from bespoke instructions. How do we get around this?

Forget the dog and the cat

Objects and thus exclusion conflicts can be avoided by steering clear of the top levels and concentrate on properties, or rather property sets that things have in common.

This then generates the feeling in the listener that the parent object is held in common too, even as in our case they are actually very different.

A real life example would be looking for an open source equivalent to Microsoft Sharepoint. The latter is a collection of different software packages which do 'things' all boxed up. The open source software stack that does these things does not come in a box labeled open source SharePoint but nevertheless together does the same things, only better and more cheaply.

By concentrating on what properties the free open source software stack has and comparing them to SP's equivalent properties, allows the listener to group together two very different ideas and create for themselves the illusion of comparable objects.

When later, the potential client finds out the unique benefits of open code and GPL licencing (properties utterly intrinsic to the parent) it is regarded as a bonus.

No weird feelings, no dissonance, no FUD.

To summarise. Child psychology warns us about exclusivity and what happens when communication clues move out of the strictly rational.

Basically, when dealing with proprietary and FOSS software, start off with top level stuff and it starts off the exclusion conflict.

Start with properties and the potential customer has a chance of following the reasoning and we avoid the flowers!


Adults, in common with children, come to the right answer when they are asked to think in the in the right way. Asking the right questions of an audience and potential customers is the way to get them thinking in the right way.

It seems likely the right way to present open source software is to concentrate on establishing the commonalities of the software with its proprietary equivalent so that it appears to be 'of the same thing'.

Only later do the other desirable but alien properties get brought into the equation. A top down approach where the difference between our cats and dogs is emphasised at the start looks for trouble.

* If you re-do the experiment with black and white cows instead of flowers, which in addition to having the property of colour they can also be in two more states, 'sleeping' and 'awake' (lying on their sides or standing up).

Make them all 'sleeping' and then ask 'Do you have more black cows or sleeping cows' and this time they will mostly get the super-set number (all cows are sleeping) to be greater than the sub-set number!