Recently the news broke that Microsoft are acquiring GitHub. Effusive opinions flowed from all directions: some saw the acquisition as a sensible fit for Microsoft to better support developers, and some saw it as a tyrant getting their grubby fingers on open source’s ecosystem.
I am thrilled for Microsoft and GitHub for many reasons, and there will be a bright future ahead because of it, but I have been thinking more about the reaction some of the critics have had to this, and why.
I find it fascinating that there still seems to be a deep-seated discomfort in some about Microsoft and their involvement in open source. I understand that this is for historical reasons, and many moons ago Microsoft were definitely on the offensive against open source. I too was critical of Microsoft and their approach back in those days. I may have even said ‘M$’ instead of ‘MS’ (ugh.)
Things have changed though. Satya Nadella, their CEO, has had a profound impact on the company: they are a significant investor and participant in open source across a multitude of open source projects, they hire many open source developers, run their own open source projects (e.g. VSCode), and actively sponsor and support many open source conferences, events, and initiatives. I know many people who work at Microsoft and they love the company and their work there. These are not microserfs: they are people like you and me.
Things have changed, and I have literally never drunk Kool-aid; this or any other type. Are they perfect? No, but they don’t claim to be. But is the Microsoft of today a radically different company to the Microsoft of the late nineties. No doubt.
Still though, this cynicism exists in some. Some see them as a trojan horse and ask if we can really trust them?
A little while ago I had a discussion with someone who was grumbling about Microsoft. After poking around his opinion, what shook out was that his real issue was not with Microsoft’s open source work (he was supportive of this), but it was with the fact that they still produce proprietary software and use software patents in departments such as Windows and Office.
Put bluntly, he believed Microsoft are ethically unfit as a company because of these reasons, and these reasons were significant enough to diminish their open source work almost entirely.
Now, I am always fascinated when people use the word “ethics” in a debate. Often it smacks of holier-than-thou hyperbole as opposed to an objective assessment of what is actually right and wrong. Also, it seems that when some bring up “ethics” the discussion takes a nosedive and those involved become increasingly uninterested in other opinions (as I am sure we will see beautifully illustrated in the comments on this post 😉 )
In this case though, I think ethics explains a lot about the variance of views on this and why we should seek to understand those who differ with us. Let me explain why.
Many of the critics of proprietary software are people who believe that it is ethically unsound. They believe that the production and release of proprietary software is a fundamentally pernicious act; that it is harmful to society and the individuals within it.
I have spent my entire career, the last 20 years, working in the open source world. I have run a number of open source communities, some large, some small. I am a live and let live kind of guy and I have financially supported organizations I don’t 100% agree with but who I think do interesting work. This includes the Free Software Foundation, Software Freedom Conservancy, and EFF, I have a close relationship with the Linux Foundation, and have worked with a number of companies on all sides of the field. Without wishing to sound like an egotistical clod, I believe I have earned my open source stripes.
Here’s the thing though, and some of you won’t like this: I don’t believe proprietary software is unethical. Far from it.
Clearly murder, rape, human trafficking, child abuse, and other despicable acts are unethical, but I also consider dishonesty, knowingly lying, taking advantage of people, and other similar indiscretions are unethical. I am not an expert in ethics and I don’t claim to be a perfectly ethical person, but by my reasoning unethical acts are a power imbalance that is forced on people without their consent.
Within my ethical code, software doesn’t get a look in. Not even close.
I don’t see proprietary software as a power imbalance. Sure, there are very dominant companies with proprietary platforms that people need to use (such as at your employer), and there are companies who have monopolies and tremendous power imbalances in the market. My ethical objection there though is with the market, not with the production of closed source software.
Now, before some of you combust. Let me be clear on this: I am deeply passionate about open source and free software and I do believe that proprietary software is sub-optimal in many situations. Heck, at least 60% of my clients are companies Ia m working with to build and deliver open source workflow.
In many situations, open source provides a much better model for collaboration, growth, security, community development, and other elements. Open source provides an incredible environment for people to shine: our broader open source ecosystem is littered with examples of under-represented groups doing great work and building fantastic careers and reputations. Open source and free software is one of the most profound technological revolutions, and it will generate great value and goodwill for many years to come.
Here lies the rub though: when I look at a company that ships proprietary products, I don’t see an unethical company, I see a company that has chosen a different model. I don’t believe the people working there are evil, that they are doing harm, and that they have mendacious intent. Is their model of building software sub-optimal? Probably, but it needs further judgement: open source clearly works in some areas (e.g. infrastructure software), but has struggled to catch on commercially in other areas (e.g. consumer software).
Put simply, open source does not guarantee success and proprietary software does not guarantee evil.
Throughout the course of my career I have always tried to understand other people’s views and build relationships even if we see things differently.
As an example, earlier I mentioned I have financially supported the Free Software Foundation and Software Freedom Conservancy. Over the years I have had my disagreements with both RMS and Bradley Kuhn, largely based on this different perspective to the ethics of software, but I respect that they come from a different position. I don’t believe they are “wrong” in their views. I believe the position they come from is different to mine. Let a thousand roses bloom: produce an ecosystem in which everyone can play a role and the best ideas will generally play out.
What is critical to me is taking a decent approach to this.
We don’t get anywhere by labelling those who work at or run companies with proprietary products as evil and as part of a shadowy cabal. We also don’t get anywhere by labelling those who do consider free software to be a part of their ethical code as “libtards” or something similarly derogatory. We need to learn more about other people’s views rather than purely focusing on out-arguing people. Sure, have fun with other people’s views, poke fun at them, but it should all be within the spirit of productive discourse.
Either way, no matter where you draw your line, or whatever your view is on the politique du jour, open source, community development, and open innovation is changing the world. We are succeeding, but we can do even greater work if we build bridges, not firebomb them. Be nice, people.