Subject: Re: Tim's paradigm shift
From: Tim O'Reilly <>
Date: Fri, 9 Jul 2004 17:42:33 -0700

On Jul 8, 2004, at 7:23 PM, Brian Behlendorf wrote:

> I had difficulty in relating what-makes-Open-Source-great to the  
> examples of network-centric business models in Tim's essay.  It's more  
> than just about architectures of participation, network effects, and  
> scale.  I think we need to think about the business value of the right  
> to fork, and whether that still applies in a web services context.

I completely agree with this idea.  But that's precisely the point of  
my article and the talks I've been giving.  IF we don't transform the  
values of open source for the new paradigm (and I agree that the right  
to fork is the heart of what makes open source open source per se), we  
are doomed to win the battle but lose the war, as the "commodity"  
components remain open, but the really valuable ones become closed.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this.  In some ways, I believe that  
the entire process is natural and OK.  But I do think that there is  
room for optimization, and some really bad holes that we as an industry  
can fall into.
> The right to fork is, as I see it, the fundamental right inherent in  
> any truly open source license.  It's the right to clone a creation  
> *out* of the hands of its creator and continue its evolution *despite*  
> where the original author(s) intend to take it.  It's how nearly every  
> major Open Source project starts, it's what keeps the investment risk  
> around collaboration low, and it's what keeps leaders of projects  
> humble.  IBM doesn't have to trust Linus with the kernel - it knows it  
> could fork at any time should their priorities and those of Linus  
> differ.

... discussion of CDDB and FreeDB omitted.

But briefly, in response, my sense is that FreeDB hasn't really taken  
off, and the reason is that the cost of duplicating CDDB is greater  
than the "tax" they impose on the system as a single source.  And that  
will happen in many areas.  But note that "the right to fork" means  
claiming the right to the database, and that's a very different  
challenge than the right to source code, with different legal regimes  
coming into play.

Note also that, apart from the fact that the Yahoo! directory was  
always generated commercially rather than by a community, the same  
dynamics apply.  OpenDirectory has some traction, but Yahoo!s dominance  
hasn't really been onerous.
> The reason we're talking about this here, rather than on some  
> open-source-utopians list, is its relevancy to business.  Let me posit  
> that any business whose operational struts are single-sourced at  
> critical points runs with significant business risk, and is not a  
> business any of us would invest in or run.  Since I assume with this  
> move to a web-service world we want to see businesses consume web  
> services as much as they provide them, to have tight loops and be  
> multilayer and all that, we want to be thinking about the resiliency  
> of such a system.  I think "open services" are key to that.  Building  
> your business to be dependent functionally upon the web services  
> provided by particular companies is no different than building  
> applications that run on Windows.  There may be money to make there,  
> no doubt about it... but in the long run I suspect it will cause the  
> same kind of dynamics between supplier and consumer as you see today  
> between Microsoft-the-platform-provider and Win32 ISVs.  Meet the new  
> boss, same as the old boss.

I agree that this is a real risk.  But I would posit that "single  
source" at particular companies isn't the problem.  If standards are  
open, then there is always the possibility of competition.  And even in  
the absence of standards, it may be relatively easy to do -- note how  
quickly Kazaa rose up after Napster was shut down.  The obstacle raised  
by a big collaborative database is operational rather than intrinsic,  
and P2P can address some of the operational issues more easily than a  
centralized db.  But those obstacles can still be significant.  The  
question I have to ask, though, from a business point of view, is  
whether this is really BAD.

I continue to feel that the intensity of the feeling around the right  
to fork and the danger of lock in has been exacerbated beyond the  
natural level by the actions of a single monopolist.  In most cases,  
companies are less able to extract such a severe tax from their users,  
and it's often more onerous to build a competing solution than it is to  
accept the tax.  This isn't all bad, because it results in people  
figuring out how to cooperate rather than trying to compete on every  

At the end of the day, the open source world doesn't look that  
different from the commercial software world in the overall balance of  
competition between projects.  "Forking" happens in the commercial  
world as well; the forker just doesn't have quite as big a leg up.  But  
take Geronimo, for instance, vs JBoss.  I'm not sure that in practice  
that was all that different from the situation when the various NCSA  
people went off to work for Netscape, Microsoft or Spyglass, and  
everyone was recreating the same wheel for a while.

Tim O'Reilly @ O'Reilly Media, Inc.
1005 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, CA 95472
707-827-7000 (company), (personal)