In my recent article How Does Open Source Software Stack Up on the Mac?, a reader and I have been having a very interesting discussion via the talkbacks at the end of the article that has drifted through various facets of OSS, economics, and ethics. I’d like to invite you to read the Why reinvent the wheel? discussion and chime in here with your thoughts. An opinionated summary of the most interesting thoughts that have come up so far follows, along with my take on each of them:
- Does OSS drive Apple (in particular) to innovate? Examples?
- What does it mean to “steal ideas” in software? For example, if Apple adds tabs to iChat in its next release, will they be “stealing” that idea from Chax? Or are features like tabbed interfaces simple commodities by their very nature?
- What does the mere existence of OSS alternatives to any given software market mean? Do more options for the end user necessarily mean a better market? Why or why not?
- What ethical responsibility does Apple have to its shareholders when it comes to either updating an app with features that might “crush” a small developer’s work or otherwise shipping an inferior product? (re: adding tabs to iChat or releasing Dashboard with Tiger)
My take to these questions — in a nutshell — follows:
- Ideas that come forth in OSS unquestionably drive Apple to innovate. Adium and Firefox are two great cases in point for OS X specifically. Note that while not all software drives Apple to innovate, all software has the potential to fuel innovation. That potential can never be a bad thing, and in many cases, it matures into another high quality option for the end user. What’s not to like about that?
- I think that “stealing ideas” in software is a very difficult thing to do in user interface design, and personally, I’m generally very much against software patents of any kind. Stealing algorithms, however, is an entirely different story if you have to reverse engineer software or partake in corporate espionage to figure them out. As for tabbed interfaces, I think they’re as generic as this text pane I’m typing in right now. In other words, I couldn’t even begin to make the case that tabbed interfaces are not commodities by their very nature — regardless of how original your idea is for employing them.
- The more alternatives there are for any given market, including the software market, the better. Although more options may not necessarily mean a better market, I think that healthy markets generally do have multiple options available for any given closed source product, which drives competitiveness and ultimately creates a win for the consumer. For example, what incentive do I have to purchase Photoshop if the Gimp will do just fine for my particular needs? Web browsers are another great case in point because they’ve become so amazingly ubiquitous in our daily lives. The key to understanding economics generally lies with noting where the incentives are and what clout they bring along with them.
- I certainly don’t like to see small developers get swamped by big corporations and I’m thankful that Apple is an organization that seems to (in my judgment) have a fairly symbiotic relationship with lots of small developers. Still, at the end of the day, Apple has a primary responsibility to its shareholders — a responsibility of making money. There’s no question in my mind that when it comes down to the bottom line, Apple will do whatever it takes to hail state-of-the-art applications, even if it means knocking a small developer out of the market to stay on top.
Granted, these are just a few of my highly opinionated thoughts on these topics — but I would sincerely enjoy hosting a discussion related to your affirmations or rebuttals related to these (and other OSS) topics related to economics and ethics.
Please — share your thoughts.