On Politics: How Proprietary vs. Open Source is like Obama vs. Clinton and why we need to get over it and get on with the work

24 April, 2008

"The enemy isn't Microsoft. The enemy is non-use"

Matt Asay, The Ten Commandments of Open Source

For the past month, watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — two relatively noble politicians who largely want the same good things for this country — say and do silly things to each other over the most superficial of disagreements in an atmosphere of ever-increasing animosity, I've been experiencing a disgust that was strangely familiar. All month I struggled to place where I'd felt this particular variety of nausea before, what other phenomenon oozes this same poison. And then I figured it out: it's the old Open Source vs. Evil Corporation flamewar. It's Slashdot all over again.

I won't alienate 40.4 percent of you by telling you which side I think is which since the key point is this: when two groups with basically the same objectives spend their best energy beating on each other those objectives are guaranteed to stay largely unaccomplished.

And just like every day that Obama and Clinton spend attacking each other leaves less hope for those good goals the two candidates share, every flamewar, every easy attack on Microsoft, every knee jerk reaction against a company that charges for its software leaves less attention available to solve the problems we all share of data interoperability, scaling, user friendliness, etc.

It's a fine thing to stand up for important values like openness and freedom, and, gosh knows, we have real disagreements on some topics that deserve to be debated vigorously, but the constant mutual harassment and posturing actually make these debates harder to resolve.

Both sides are guilty of this and we pay a measurable cost for it.

On the Open Source side, we tend to rule out technologies that reek of big corporate support even when they might be the best choice for the job and on the corporate side they tend to be too cautious, holding off on new ideas until they're blessed by the vendor of choice.

For example, I recently had a good old fashioned geek out with Rory Blyth, a college friend who went on to work at Microsoft. We spent a few hours having two of the oldest, least productive, and most fun coding conversations around: static vs. dynamic typing and SOAP vs. REST, as well as one new one that's shaping up to acquire a similar status: relational vs. document databases. While we seem to have an unbridgeable spiritual divide on the first topic, we each managed to convince each other, at least a little bit, on the last two. Rory did a strong job arguing in favor of the value of SOAP APIs for client implementors because of the strong level of automation and framework/IDE support that they enable and convincing me that at least some of my RESTful bias is inherited unquestioned from my community. Likewise, I managed to overcome Rory's profound SQL Server loyalty to convince him that relational databases, which were designed to perform original relational algebra in order to resolve a query with an unknown answer, are a bad architectural fit for most web applications which simply use them for object persistence. He left eager to check out CouchDB and I left resolved to explore Ruby's SOAP options.

This is exactly the kind of outcome that gets crowded out of most online discourse by the flamewars and name calling. The animosity and ugliness pushes us deeper into our own camps, just as moderate politicians tend to head to the extremes of their own party during a hard fought primary.

Well, the primary's over. I hereby declare it to be the general election. There's a world out there with real problems. From global warming to the growing international food crisis to the war on free speech, the world faces serious challenges that can only be overcome by radically great technology, the license it's released under be damned.

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