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August 7, 2007 » 9:23 pm

Open Source Mergers and the Circle of UNIX

Lloyd Budd wrote a post today entitled, “GPL Encourages Collaboration,” that was highly serendipitous and that triggered a flood of thoughts, some of which I’ll try to capture here. Earlier today, I was rereading an interview I did with Sunir Shah a few months back for a paper I’m writing, and I latched onto a point that Sunir made about the proliferation of Wiki communities:    (MHR)

I see so many people start their own Wikis. They go to these other Wikis that are disorganized. They don’t feel like jumping in and learning everything because everything’s in different places, and they are not coherent. So they start their own.    (MHS)

There are now thousands of public Wikis, and they are all balkanized, because no one wants to collaborate. I understand that. It’s human nature. You collaborate within your group, but you don’t collaborate outside of that group.    (MHT)

On the one hand, I encourage the proliferation of Wikis, because if you disagree with someone, you should be able to do your own thing. On the other hand, true collaboration is showing a willingness to actually pull these communities together, a willingness to subsume your immediate need to be a true leader, build relationships, and pull people together.    (MHU)

Sunir’s insight is an important one. The existence of a commons isn’t in itself enough to guarantee collaboration. Ultimately, collaboration is intentional. You have to want to collaborate with others, and you have to be proactive about it. And it only takes two for starters.    (MHV)

That said, if you want to encourage collaboration, you have to start by eliminating as many barriers as possible. The first barriers are Shared Understanding and Shared Language. In the Open Source community, both of these have been indoctrinated in the form of Open Source licenses. The main reason for the effectiveness of these licenses as vehicles for Shared Understanding is Richard Stallman.    (MHW)

When RMS originally wrote the GPL, he embedded the philosophy behind the terms in the license itself. It was not simply a legal document, but an essay on the principles underlying software freedom. Regardless of how you feel about the GPL or RMS, these remain the fundamental principles behind why Open Source works, and more importantly, why collaboration is so rampant in Open Source communities.    (MHX)

However, as Sunir notes, this isn’t enough to guarantee collaboration. We see a lot of redundancy in Open Source, just as we see lots of redundancy in Wiki communities. And that’s okay. There are sometimes good reasons for this redundancy, and it’s healthy to facilitate it. But eventually, you want convergence also.    (MHY)

This is the crux of Lloyd’s post. He writes, “Forking is good, but not as good as merging.”    (MHZ)

Lloyd also cites a few examples (WordPress, gcc) and asks for others. There are tons of good ones, but my favorite is a bit obscure: UNIX.    (MI0)

That’s right, UNIX. Yes, the history of UNIX is fraught with ugliness, some of which still continues today. But it’s also one of the greatest examples of Open Source forking and merging. This is important, because it’s also the birthplace of the modern Open Source movement.    (MI1)

Here’s the quick summary. UNIX came from AT&T labs, and the original license terms were ambiguous (a massive understatement if there ever was one) for a number of reasons, the main one being that most people weren’t thinking about software as IP at the time. Stallman, of course, was one of the exceptions, and in 1984, he started the GNU project, whose goal was to reimplement UNIX under the GPL.    (MI2)

A few years earlier at UC Berkeley, Bill Joy had taken a different approach. He simply forked AT&T UNIX into what is now known as BSD UNIX. The new code eventually was distributed under the BSD license, which essentially allowed anyone to do whatever they wanted with the code, as long as they gave credit to BSD and didn’t sue anybody. This led to many, many new forks, especially proprietary ones from Sun (cofounded by Joy), IBM, DEC, SGI, and many, many others.    (MI3)

With the advent of the 386 in the late 1980s came a number of PC forks, including 386BSD (which begat FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD), BSDI, SCO, and MINIX (which begat Linux). At this point, most versions of UNIX were also borrowing heavily from the GNU project.    (MI4)

By the late 1990s, we started seeing massive convergence. IBM, Sun, DEC (now HP), SGI, and SCO (yes, SCO) all switched over to Linux, and started merging some of their proprietary capabilities into the Linux kernel. Apple moved to FreeBSD.    (MI5)

What the heck happened? You could attribute this phenomenon to market consolidation, but that would only be telling part of the story. Market forces indeed played a strong role, just as they a play a strong role in anything that involves… well, markets. But the important points are these. The ability to fork UNIX into both proprietary and free versions allowed the market to innovate rapidly, and that innovation was critical to both the success of UNIX and to the growth of the industry as a whole. However, the existence of a free version of UNIX was critical in enabling the consolidation of all of these different UNIXes, even if they weren’t necessarily formal mergers. Why were all of these competing companies willing to throw their hat into the Linux ring? Because of the Open Source license, which protected companies from their competitors hijaacking the commons and using their own code against them.    (MI6)

Ironically, the story of UNIX is also one of the reasons I believe that the GPL’s terms are unnecessary for the proliferation of software freedom. The BSD license enabled proprietary forks, which arguably enabled innovation that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. In fact, it’s still enabling this today; look at Mac OS X. In the end, however, culture won out; these same proprietary companies are all supporting Open Source software, not because they had to (although they do now), but because they wanted to. Empowerment is stronger than enforcement when it comes to communities and collaboration.    (MI7)

I can’t resist one more small rant, a teaser if you will. Most Web 2.0 companies seem to have learned the superficial lessons of Open Source, but they’ve missed the main point. The argument that Open APIs obviate the need for Open Source completely ignores what history has taught us over and over again. One of these days, I’ll blog about this.    (MI8)

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