Subject: Re: Free Software vs. Disruptive Change
From: "Stephen J. Turnbull" <stephen@xemacs.org>
Date: 02 Jul 2002 15:58:42 +0900

>>>>> "Tim" == Tim O'Reilly <tim@oreilly.com> writes:

    Tim> But Linux is extremely disruptive when it comes to the
    Tim> economics of the industry.

Really?  I don't see it that way.  Unless you mean "Linux and the GNU
system and the whole open source community".  I'll accept that
formulation happily.

Here's why I think Linux itself is no problem.  Linux, the kernel,
isn't a threat to Sun or IBM; they just drop Linux, the kernel, into
their product line like any other OEM component.  The same is true for
the GNU/Linux system as a whole; they could license from Red Hat or
develop their own on top of Debian (or *BSD, cf MacOS/X).  Sure, this
OEM component threatens Solaris and AIX, and when the "purchaser" is
Compaq or Dell, it threatens that big OEM OS company in Redmond, too.
But this isn't new economics.  The OS division shrinks or reorganizes,
but that's just business as usual in the face of efficient rivals.

It's just like Detroit's Big Three had to respond to the Toyota
Corolla.  That didn't "disrupt" the economics.  It was the same
economics as ever, just the Big Three had gotten lazy about cost and
quality.  Get into gear, develop similar cost reductions, OEM from
someone who already did---or die.  Traditional economics.

But Linux as a platform for open source development and deployment,
now _that_ is a 500 pound gorilla.

Open source is a disruptive development/distribution technology,
because it threatens to knock out each and all proprietary[1] software
_marketing organizations_ at a blow.[2]  Because open source can be
developed _and distributed_ on a distributed basis, you have to watch
the whole WWW to know where the final punch is coming from.  And once
it appears, it can propagate incredibly quickly.  Linux qua OS is a
piece of that puzzle, but not a very important one.  It's the GNU
Project, not any subset of the GNU projects, that is disruptive.[3]

Not even Microsoft is invulnerable: they're now selling upgrades over
the net by subscription rather than as shrink-wrapped CDs (although
they still do a lot of the latter).  But this is a distribution
technology, not a software technology.  It's the same distribution
technology that made Napster such a threat.  And I think this was
partly driven by the example of open source, although that would be
hard to prove.


Footnotes: 
[1]  And if Jonathan Shapiro is correct, all profit-oriented software
marketing organizations based on internally-developed software are
threatened, too.

[2]  Certainly, some are far more at risk than others.  OSes lead the
parade of "candidates at risk."  Also, I think that the distribution
aspect is extremely important.  "Undistributed" software, for internal
use, is not that threatened by open source.  But note that these
developers are generally considered overhead by the parent
organization; rarely the source of competitive advantage.  So even
here we see some evidence for Jonathan's pessimism.

[3]  Example chosen intentionally; Richard Stallman presents similar
analysis.

-- 
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