"Freewash, fake beards, and the enclosure of the software commons"


The 20th February 2008 was one of those 'Microsoft moments', when suddenly, the world changed. Just like when they 'got' the network (and we got NT), or they 'got' the Internet (and we got 'Internet Explorer'). This time they 'got' Open Source and Open Standards and the company is about to make another of their legendary radical transformations... or so they would like you to believe.

The pattern of these 'Microsoft moments' is revealing. Each previous one has come long after most of the rest of the technology world has seen the latest change as inevitable - a situation that with Open Source and Open Standards has been staring us in the face for a long time now.

So does Microsoft's conversion signal the final phase of the ascendancy of Open Source, Open Standards?

Let's look a little closer.

The Microsoft model, as they are explaining it, is becoming asymptotic to the Open Source one. Interoperability, access to the code, free tools for developers and students, open international standards validated by standards bodies. It certainly looks like it, but an asymptotic curve never quite reaches the line.

The good news is that it is an implicit acknowledgment that the way technology is done has irrevocably changed. Their track record shows unequivocally that they will sooner or later adapt to the inevitable. But the real Open Source business model is so alien, so diametrically opposed to the fundamental business model Microsoft has pursued for decades, we must ask if there are alternative explanations, and what the real game-plan is?

Let's put to one side the obvious observation that Microsoft's legal woes in the EU and around the world provide a powerful incentive to make it appear they have changed their ways. And let's do the same with the observation that the critical ISO vote on the fate of their rival office document standard, the cornerstone of the desktop monopoly, is imminent - too obvious, too superficial. Microsoft is far too subtle a tactician to leave it at that.

Open Source and Open Standards have created a potent, compelling, ever-expanding commons of powerful software. A complete, freely- available 'stack' that can be implemented at low cost by companies from one-man bands to Global giants. A commons owned by none and owned by all.

It is the secret ingredient of a whole new generation of businesses, and canny adopters from the previous generation. Google is not the only 'poster child' to have realised the supply- side benefits of running their operation on Free Software. And the economic and financial benefits, some would the least of the many benefits, accrue mainly to the users of Open Source software.

Historically, the economic benefits of a commons has primarily benefited the users. Of course the physical commons has always been subject to the so-called 'tragedy of the commons'*. The laws of physics, fortunately, do not apply to the world of ideas (and by extension, software). If I share a good idea, we both benefit, and the idea itself remains undiminished and inexhaustible.

Also historically, the exploitation of the commons to make a few fantastically rich and the rest of us merely 'consumers and customers' has been accomplished by enclosure.

The last significant 'enclosure of the commons' began in England, and enabled the Industrial Revolution. Whilst critics have called it 'the revolution of the rich against the poor', many would concede it also provided many benefits, and many that 'trickled down' to all. This may well be correct, but it is beside the point. Physical commons are finite and exhaustible. Ideas and software are not. The marginal cost of duplicating software is, well, negligible, a phenomenon visibly vexing the considerable talents of the record labels and lawyers of the music industry.

Without enclosure, the inevitable consequence of Open Source and Open Standards will be to drive the cost of software right down close to the marginal cost of replicating it. In economic terms, this is a good thing. A functioning free market is meant to drive down costs and benefit the consumers of a good or service. Open Source, Open Standards is quintessentially free market by nature, and extremely good for competition.

Incidentally, it also turns IT into a services business.

So how would one 'enclose the software commons'?

  1. Software Patents.
  2. Own the standards.
  3. Define the terms of the 'game'.

Open Source draws a distinction between 'proprietary' and 'non- proprietary'.

Microsoft attempts to draw a distinction between 'commercial' and 'non-commercial' and seeks to confuse the proprietary/non-proprietary distinction by ignoring it. Ingenuous as well as faintly patronising.

Run the latest announcements through the Open Source filters and the game becomes transparent.

Microsoft have accepted that the rise of 'Open Source' and 'Open Standards' is inevitable. If the authentic version is accepted, monopoly rents will no longer accrue to a single provider, and financial benefits will accrue, heaven forbid!, to the customer.

This is simply unacceptable to their long-established business model. The only solution will be to define the game in terms that allows the monopoly to survive. The monopoly is not in the software, it is in the rent from the usage of the software.

By enclosing the commons (think of the patent deals with Novell, Xandros and others), by owning the standards, and by defining which 'Open Source' products you are allowed to buy and which you aren't, Microsoft can suddenly make the transition to the new world. Patent Encumbrance. Faux 'standards'. Control the terminology and hence the 'game'.

The enclosure of the commons will proceed by creating a group 'inside the ring-fence' and leaving the rest 'outside'. Those inside will pay, how shall we say it, 'protection' money. If you buy from those 'outside'... well let's just say nasty things happen to people who don't pay.

So you can have your 'Open Source' software if you really insist... just so long as you pay a royalty to Microsoft for every copy that gets shipped. It's great if all those 'non-commercial' people want to develop software for Microsoft and their ring-fenced group of 'authorised' 'Open Source' partners.
They generously promise that they wont even sue their unpaid workforce.

And what do you lose?

Just this. In the commons that exists right now, today, the economic and financial benefits accrue mainly to you. In the enclosed commons, they accrue mainly to the supplier that holds the patents and the standards. Business as usual. Checkmate. On the bright side, Microsoft get to keep their margins, and you didn't want to improve yours anyway, did you?

Note: The 'Tragedy of the commons', in plain English, is simply this: If you and I are free to graze our cattle on a patch of common land, we will rush to make sure our cattle graze it first.

The stampede will cause the land to degenerate into a sea of mud. Apologists for rich landowners used this argument to show how the enclosure of the physical commons was 'good for us'.

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