The dark side of open source

I read today about the Tragedy of Eclipse and I think it’s a fine insight to the seldom discussed side of open source.  Like the dark side of the moon, most people have never seen it or thought about it.  When corporations sponsor open source projects they aren’t doing it because Richard Stallman spoke to their hearts.  They do it for the basest of reasons: because it helps them.

The most obvious reason is when corporations want to commoditize another corporation’s advantage.  Firefox is a great example of this.  Nobody could have won a head on fight against Microsoft Internet Explorer but a project like Firefox with a commitment to open source ideology, standards and the like captured the minds of many.  Projects like Firefox don’t get built by a few hackers on weekends.  A lot of developers were either loaned to or ultimately subsidized by big Mozilla contributors like Google.  It is clearly in Google’s best interest to weaken Microsoft’s control over the browser.

Another reason is when corporations want to use commoditized or standard implementations in their products so they can focus on the bigger problems.  This is the case with Linux, OpenSSH and Eclipse.  Imagine having a commercial partner who gives you world class software components at cost.  Nobody is going to compete on the basis of their development IDE or a network stack but those things are essential to any large project.

In both cases, corporations are effectively co-opting the open source project’s goals to their needs.

Ultimately I think this is a fair tradeoff.  Small companies could never get started without open source projects.  I do think it would be better if like the source code, this business model was a little more out in the open.

This all works well until the projects in question get too close to corporations revenue.  Nobody can make money selling network stacks but a standard video compression format is the gatekeeper of all gatekeepers.  This is when those “open source friendly” corporations start acting like Big Media.  The patents on H.264 give those involved all the power and niceness of a cartel.