Are You Right With Reality?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Last week I flew to Las Vegas to talk on stage with The Gartner Group‘s lead open source analyst Mark Driver at their 2007 Open Source Summit. The subject of the discussion was a paper I presented last year in Kyoto at the STS Forum entitled Software Industry vs. Software Society: Who Wins in 2020?”. In that paper I cited a reference that the global IT spend is USD $1T (one trillion dollars!), and of that $1T, $180B is pure write-off of failed applications, and that another $206B (my estimate) is also lost due to late, broken, or late-and-broken applications. Such a dismal result has not only plunged the software industry into crisis, but has put industries using IT at risk.

I went to Las Vegas to see (1) whether the folks at Gartner see the same evidence that I do (that IT-related and IT-caused losses are freakishly out of control), and (2) whether they agreed or disagreed with the analysis I made last year (that defect rates of proprietary software and the architectural inflexibility of monolithic “integrated” solutions militate against innovation and choice). I am happy to report that we saw eye-to-eye on both subjects. Which brings me to question number 3: if the global IT consumer continues to accept IT-related write-downs of $386B/year, are they really right with reality?

Why are the great majority of global IT buyers buying the same (or “upgraded”) applications and operating systems from the same proprietary sources in 2007 and expecting that something things will be different than their experience in 2006? Are they insane? Maybe ten years ago they had no choice, but what my STS Forum paper showed was that a radically different model–Open Source Software–delivers radically different, radically better results than have been observed in the proprietary software world. Mark Driver seemed to mostly agree that the benefits of this different approach were radical, and moreover, that those benefits would lead to increased open source adoption by businesses over the next 5 to 7 to 10 years. Which I agree with.

One of the questions we received during the interview was the question “What’s the difference between the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative?” I chose to answer the question based on the constituencies of free software and open source. In my view, the fundamental difference between the free software movement and the open source movement is that free software is based on the ethics of software freedom, and open source is based on pragmatic implementation of observed results. I am a believer in fundamental human rights, including the right to live a healthy life free from oppression. But I am also heavily influenced by what science teaches, and when science teaches that we need to respect the environment or we need to pay attention to what we eat in order to live a healthy life, I tend to lean in the direction of protecting oceans and forests for the health of all rather than strip-mining and clear-cutting them for profit today. When I first read the GNU Manifesto I was compelled by the moral and ethical arguments that Stallman presented. But what made me willing to do something different, rather than merely take the side of the argument at cocktail parties, was that I saw the commercial benefits of such a model as well. These benefits have now been validated by academic and commercial case studies alike, many of which are referenced in the paper. Is it unethical to adopt an ethical position based on pragmatic reasons? I don’t think so. Is it pragmatic to adopt an ethical position without pragmatic evidence? I don’t think so. Thus, I identify with open source because it takes the position of pragmatic validation, even if it validates a position based on ethics. (I should also note that I know many capitalists who believe that it is unethical to ignore what the free market teaches. I consider that a fairly extreme position, but I include it because it shows that some capitalists are, at their core, deeply ethical people.)

Back to the paper…and question number 3. The paper tells the story of W. Edwards Deming trying to convince a bunch of US CEOs that their industrial practices were unsustainable and headed for disaster. These CEOs, flush with victory, flush with capital, and flush with the outrageous bonuses they paid themselves, did not pay attention. Deming did not remain silent, and though it was ignored in the US, he was heard in Japan, and we all know how the next 50 years played out, with Toyota now #1 in their industry. I do believe that 50 years from now, history will show that (1) Open Source provided the software industry with a strategy and a mechanism for emerging from its present crisis, and that (2) those who made the change sooner rather than later became the new industry leaders, and those who fought against it until the bitter end will meet just that-a bitter end.

I am writing a new position paper that I will share in Kyoto next month, synthesizing specific solutions I see to the problems presented in the 2006 paper. But I’ll be publishing my prototypes here, on my blog. So if you want to read an advanced copy, stay tuned!