Open Source: The Key to a Software Meritocracy
While the venture capital-funded dot-com boom may be well behind us, there is still hope for programmers to make an honest living. With the growing influence of open source software, the road is paved for businesses to succeed on their merits rather than through proprietary lock-in, writes columnist Jeremiah Gray.
08/22/08 4:00 AM PT
Remember the good old days? Like back in 1999 when you could, as a friend of mine put it, "make a hundred thousand dollars a year for being able to spell Java." Those were the days, back when programmers driving Porsches had become a cliché.
Now, more than a decade after the dot-com boom began, tech people once again find themselves earning less money despite bringing significantly more value to their employers. As demands on technology workers increase each year, we see diminishing returns on our labor. And rather than taking issue, we often find ourselves relieved simply to have not been replaced by cheaper remote employees.
Where's Our Slice?
Yes, the information age has made some sizable fortunes, but very little of the pie has gone to those most responsible for assembling it and getting it ready to bake. This phenomenon generally occurs because the prevailing economy has co-opted incoming technology, but we are at a point where we can use all the new technology to escape the decrepit existing model altogether.
Whereas we once saw so much promise in the Internet as an equalizing force in society, it didn't take long before the usual sorts of suspects started to show up with their lawyers in order to reconfigure it to suit their interests.
Like with so many other great inventions, restrictions and usage guidelines began to displace innovation. Rather than free, ubiquitous and organic networks, we get offers for DMCA, Trusted Computing and tiered Internet service, complete with deep packet inspection.
A younger version of me might cry foul at the quasi-monopolies angling to ruin the Net, but now I don't blame them. I resent many of them and wish to hasten their demise, but I understand their position that, to quote Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the king."
However, despite their massive spending on lobbyists and politicians, computer-based technology continues to spread throughout the world. Free and open source software continue to spread throughout the world, rendering the proprietary giants more irrelevant by the day.
The New Model
In the most recent tech business climate, we see (social networking) startup after (social networking) startup soliciting venture capital explicitly for the purpose of becoming sufficiently high profile to be acquired by a higher-profile multinational.
Whereas in the days of the dot-com boom we had public offerings with Webvan and Pets.com, we now have acquisition candidates like Facebook and Twitter whose best hopes involve a takeover (full disclosure: the author loves Twitter).
So far as many of the players nowadays are concerned, the "eyeball model" is the only viable business model given the alleged conventional wisdom that end users are unwilling to pay for software services. Unfortunately for them, many of these folks scrambling to attract user eyeballs and most or all of the AT&T and Microsoft shills hustling to lock down and make proprietary any and all computer technology are sinking with the ship because they will never own progress.
In fact, by attempting to control the future of technology through proprietary binaries, back-room deals and legislation, they stimulate the resistance that will squeeze them out of the marketplace.
This is not to say that all proprietary software and networks are imminently doomed; indeed, both the BSD and GPL licenses have merit, but the system that uses technology to restrict and control is living on borrowed time.
Into Its Own
Since the early 1990s, we have seen GNU/Linux grow into a mature operating system. We have seen it power significant portions of the Web, and we have seen it run on embedded systems and desktop workstations worldwide. Many businesses, including large enterprises, rely on Linux for their operations and profitability, and some have contributed significantly to its development. Because of all this development, we now have a toolkit from which to develop a financial ecosystem outside the boundaries of "business as usual."
Upon hearing "startup," you probably automatically think of technology companies, generally because it's the sort of business a person can actually just start. Whereas, for example, extractive industries require major financial resources up front and financial services companies require extensive bureaucratic approval, because of the availability of free and open source software, pretty much anyone with a clever idea can start a tech-oriented business.
Using freely available tools and resources, small organizations can readily compete with some of the largest companies on the planet.
Whereas the GPL has sometimes been called a liability and a roadblock to profitability, enough pieces of software and of the business puzzle are fitting together now to where forward-thinking individuals are able to capture revenue and capitalize off free and open source software, and for every company that stands on its own offering users freedom rather than domination, another nail goes into the coffins of the groups that have tried to pull the ladder up after themselves.
When we fulfill the prophecy of freedom in technology, it will be apparent because developers and sysadmins will be able to purchase their Porsches with actual profits rather than investment money.
Perhaps more importantly, we will be positioned to make decisions rather than take orders because we will have created a system in which freedom flourishes; we will have created a meritocracy in which products and businesses succeed on ideas and execution rather than patronage and political connections.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, "Hackett and Bankwell."