In the beginning, Microsoft got it wrong

I learned to program computers before the World Wide Web existed, and still remember the walled gardens that fought a losing battle against it in the early days. I remember Microsoft “not getting” the internet at all — it’s worth remembering that Windows 95 shipped without a browser, or even a TCP/IP stack (the low-level plumbing that lets your computer talk to other computers across the internet).

During the years immediately prior to Windows 95, there were other options. I remember not being able to justify the cost of IBM OS/2, and feeling that I missed out — a widely held view at the time being that it was better than Microsoft Windows. Of course, the public only learned years later of the internal falling out between Microsoft and IBM; that OS/2 started out in life as the next generation of Windows, and that history might have been very different indeed if Windows 3 hadn’t sold by the bucket load.

David and Goliath

During the reign of Windows 98 over the desktop computer landscape Linux appeared and grew in popularity like a weed. It was fiddly, complicated, and support was almost non-existent, but it had a saving grace — it was free. Linux was unexpectedly embraced by the architects of server farms around the world and quietly took market share from the leviathan Unix servers that had once ruled. It wasn’t so much a battle between David and Goliath, as a thousand Davids versus a few Goliaths.

The emergence of the open-source movement more or less prevented corporate interests from dictating the systems that connect the world. It had nothing to do with cost — it had everything to do with freedom. The freedom to share knowledge, expertise, and source code. The freedom to make things better, to explore, to tinker, and to investigate. The freedom to improve, embrace, extend, and share.

In a somewhat inspired move, IBM pivoted and became a supplier of services. Many of those that didn’t react quickly enough ceased to exist.

The rising tide of open source collaboration lifts all boats

Among my peers, I am one of the few who has worked on open source projects outside of my paid job. I have witnessed the difference in quality that sharing, open collaboration, and peer review can bring. While a lot of free software might be seen as questionable, the more well-known projects engender a healthy spirit of competition within their development communities — it results in solid, performant, well documented, and well-tested solutions.

The commercial world owes more than it knows

Developers in the commercial world conveniently ignore that they take advantage of the open-source community at every turn — borrowing code, methods, techniques and knowledge from countless blog posts donating hard-won expertise.

It’s worth remembering that commercial developers typically write code to requirements dictated by the less knowledgable, for the least amount of money, in the shortest timeframe possible. Almost disastrously, proper documentation and testing are often a luxury that project sponsors choose not to invest in.

There is a wonderfully prescient quote I first heard some time ago about the market reports so often referenced by commercial project managers that still makes me smile today — “teaching the blindingly obvious to the obviously blind”.

Opposite and alternative

The open-source world often has no budgets, no dictated designs, and no deadlines. Successful projects capture the imagination of the community working on them — who invest enormous amounts of time, effort, experience and expertise. Commercial organisations that “get” open source software — and benefit from it — often donate funds, or invest their own developers time. Projects are allowed to become as good as they can be, rather than as good as a deadline or budget allows.

It might sound odd for somebody with my background — a career working as a developer on commercial projects with tightly bound intellectual property rights — to hold the free/open-source software movement in such evangelistic terms. I have no answer to that.

I will recall my first visit to the Microsoft campus at Reading in the United Kindom some years ago. On the way into the building, I had to cross the polished floor of the main atrium, and half expected the floor to open up beneath me, dropping me into a pit with a corporate Rancor monster while the ranks of licensing specialists looked down from above.

A thought to take away

Isaac Newton famously said that if he had seen further, he had done so by standing on the shoulders of giants. Following a related train of thought, a voice in my head tells me that those who will not share should not benefit from those that do.