Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Open source is all good

I'm really glad that the trademark and patent laws of today were not in force any sooner. Thank Dagg no corporation patented Fire or The Wheel. Maxwell's Equations were available for anyone and the only hurdles for anyone accessing Newton's Principia Mathethematica were buying the book and then understanding it. Today, things are a lot more complicated. For example, Human DNA is patentable. Yep, those proteins that make you you can become someone else's proprietary goods.

That's not all. Companies are pushing the envelope on what is patentable. The pharmaceutical industry is particularly good at this. Then there's software. Should the software behind search engines be protected as an invention? Each region chooses its own path. Many US companies think so and pursue it rigorously. The EU voted 648 - 14 against allowing companies to patent computer-implemented inventions.

Ironically, the US approach may very well have patched itself into a corner. According to the NZ Herald, the open source OS Linux is used by 56 percent of US companies, compared with 16 percent of Australasian companies. It seems that NZ and Oz management equate free with unreliable, a sure sign that X and Y have not got enough clout in the boardroom.

Perhaps it's the connotations of open source that puts off the business leaders. If open source is socialist, I'm OK with that. It is voluntary socialism, not compulsion. And look at the results: Firefox vs Internet Explorer, Wikipedia vs Encarta. Linux vs NT. Knowledge vs secrets. Don't accuse me of Microsoft bashing either. Over in Oz, Microsoft are squeezing schools for annual licences in a way that would make Naomi Klein wince:
Kingscliff High School on the North Coast used government grants, private sponsorship and a $50 per student voluntary annual contribution to establish a high-tech environment usually associated with affluent private schools. It has associations with Microsoft, the whiteboard manufacturer Commander, Intouch Consulting and internet service provider IWB.net... "children need Microsoft Office, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, at home rather than the programs included with Microsoft Works, which is often sold with budget-priced PCs. "We've had some difficulties transferring files if they don't have Word."

Abbotsleigh in Sydney: "The school charges a $330 annual fee per student to provide home licences for the Microsoft software used at school."
Remember, this is education money spent on the equivalent of pens and paper. The kids haven't learnt anything yet.

Microsoft has had a good innings. Face it, Firefox is better than IE. Wikipedia is better than Encarta. Linux is better than XP. Maybe it's all a coincidence but I doubt it. "Nothing to do with whether open source is good or not." Yes it is.