Friday, May 24, 2024

FOSS, Business, and Psychopathy

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Sometimes, the naivety in the free and open source software (FOSS) community seems willful. How else to explain the outrage in some circles when another company is caught fulfilling its natural function of maximizing its profits at the expense of FOSS ideals?

Too often, FOSS supporters fail to understand corporations — and, consequently, they are unable to deal effectively with them.

The latest example is the article on Groklaw about Novell’s interactions with Microsoft over Microsoft’s Office Open XML file format.

The article requires some patience. It starts with the giant leap of logic that Microsoft is pursuing the same tactics to sabotage that it did twenty years ago with the OS/2 operating system, and includes the obligatory swipe at Miguel de Izaca.

But, despite such excesses, it still manages to report accurately on the situation, proving beyond any serious doubt that Novell’s interactions with Microsoft were contrary to the interests of both FOSS and Novell’s status as a company that derives part of its income from FOSS.

However, what is extraordinary to me is the shocked tone of the article. A cynic might dismiss the tone as that of a demagogue playing to the crowd, but to me it seems too sustained to be anything but genuine. The first sentence describes the interaction as “gruesome,” and the article goes on to bemoan “the sorry picture.” Near the end it contains the soliloquy:

Oh, Novell. What were you thinking? Why would you agree to this? I can read these words, so why couldn’t you? They say you are being used to prop up the reputation of Open XML, while not really making it compatible in the end. What kind of goals are these? For a *standard*? For a company selling GNU/Linux?

Then, as if that were not enough, on Christmas Day, Groklaw founder Pamela Jones posted her reaction to the news. Referring to the fact that Groklaw’s coverage doubtlessly helped Novell win its case against SCO, Jones says that she felt “used and abused” to learn about Novell’s dealings with Microsoft:

Should Groklaw stop helping people like that, I asked? Is it time to shut Groklaw down? If not, is there a way to carve out helping Linux and FOSS, which is what we are about, from helping self-interested executives and board members so that in essence we end up being used by them so they get larger piles of money because we worked ourselves to the bone and then they repay the community with such a deal as this?

The sense of betrayal is unmistakable, both in itself and in the fact that it echoes what I have heard countless times before. Moreover, I sympathize and find the expression of disillusion painful to read. Trauma, after all, is never pleasant to witness.

Yet, at the same time, I wonder: how can anyone report on the doings of corporations for eight years and still be surprised when a company acts likes a company? I ask the question not because I am attacking Groklaw or Jones, but because the reaction is typical of large parts of the FOSS community, and is frequently counter-productive.

The IT Department and the Board Room

The problem is that many FOSS advocates have a limited experience of corporations. If they have not spent most of their lives outside the corporate structure, either in journalism or academia, they are generally IT professionals, whose sub-culture is separate from that of the boardrooms in which decisions are made.

In an IT department, you can believe all too easily that the norm is creativity unfettered by necessities of the market. In the IT department, when corporate reality intervenes, it is often easily dismissed as the cluelessness of marketing drones and pointy-headed bosses. Such attitudes are even more prevalent in academia or journalism, where they are all the stronger for being secondhand.

When you are inexperienced or sheltered, having any insight into how things operates is almost impossible. Probably, that inadequacy is why some FOSS advocates over-compensate by seeing gigantic conspiracies everywhere in business. This perspective not only has the advantage of easily explaining everything, but its cynicism allows the inexperienced to believe themselves wise in the ways of the world.

However, the trouble with this viewpoint is that it is a tremendous over-simplification. With even limited time in the boardroom, you soon realize that the idea that even a small company acts in a united way is insupportable.

Most of the time, a change in corporate direction is not part of any long-term strategy, but an indication that one executive’s suggestions have prevailed — a victory that may also be marked by a promotion or a shuffling of personnel.

This viewpoint explains, for example, Sun Microsystems’ on-again, off-again relationship with FOSS. When Scott McNealy was CEO, FOSS was an element of business to be supported or ignored depending on what was most useful to the company. Under Edward Zander, Sun policy was mostly to ignore FOSS, while under Jonathan Schwartz it was a solution to be emphasized.

At other times, conflicting actions are explained by the fact that, in the largest corporations, internal divisions are often in direct competition with each other. For instance, departments at IBM that offer FOSS solutions are at odds with those that offer proprietary solutions for Microsoft products.

While such a strategy seems illogical to an individual, on the corporate level it has the advantage of minimizing risk. Usually, it does not produce maximum profitability, but the strategy of competing departments usually ensures overall profitability for the corporation — and, among the corporate elite, not losing is more important than winning spectacularly. If a division or two goes under on the way, that doesn’t matter nearly so much as the company as a whole making a profit.

By contrast, never having witnessed such behavior (and it is bizarre, the first few times that you see it), many FOSS advocates are incapable of interpreting corporate behavior in terms of anything other than conspiracy theory.

In particular, this view suggests, Microsoft cannot possibly be sincere about its involvement with what it calls open source. Instead, the company must be carrying out a devious game of feint and counter-feint, even if its scope and details are not immediately obvious.

Yet if you apply Occam’s Razor, what is most likely is that Microsoft, like any other company, is perfectly willing to adopt open source where it is useful, and to cling to traditional business models where it is not.

Since most of Microsoft’s income comes from two proprietary products — Windows and MS Office — the company is probably still on the whole hostile to FOSS, but this conclusion only superficially resembles that of the conspiracy theorists: It is based on observation, not paranoia, and can be modified by experience.

Like most corporations, Microsoft can no doubt endure a considerable amount of contradiction so long as it can claim a profit at the end of each year.

The idea that the main function of corporations is to make money sounds so banal that I hesitate to mention it. Yet it can hardly be said too often, because most FOSS advocates, not being overly concerned with finance or accounting themselves, usually overlook it.

In fact, corporations are so fixated on profit that Robert Hare, who has researched psychopathy for over forty years, compares their behavior to that of psychopaths. What he means is that corporations tend to pursue this prime directive to the exclusion of all other considerations. While individuals within companies may follow ethical strategies, most of the time most corporations only show a conscience when doing so helps their profitability.

Even then, they are just as likely to rely on the appearance of ethics rather than the reality — as shown by the number that have proudly announced how green their products are, only for their claims to be debunked by consumer research.

Similarly, when a company shows support for FOSS, the chances are that it is doing so because it needs the support of the community, and not because it is seriously interested in innovative business plans in the abstract.

If I call some FOSS advocates naive, it is because this pattern of interaction has been shown again and again. An individual executive may support FOSS, or a company may be FOSS-friendly for a time or for a specific issue, but companies that are FOSS-friendly over long periods of time are rare. Where they exist, they tend to be companies small enough to be inspired by a visionary founder.

Despite the fiction that gives corporations the legal status of people, businesses are not individuals. And this fact is so readily observable that the exceptions hardly seem to count. Personally, my sense of outrage was exhausted long ago.

The Strange Case of LibreOffice

Being outraged when a company looks out for itself has the advantage of re-affirming who you are. In other ways, though, it can be counter-productive.

For instance, in the week since Groklaw expressed a sense of betrayal, its readers have suddenly awoken to the fact that LibreOffice, the fork, was started and largely run by Novell employees.

They have also realized that LibreOffice, and likely Go-OO before it, supports the Office Open XML format. In the week since Jones’ Christmas editorial, her readers have suddenly appeared on tdf-discuss a LibreOffice mailing list, many of threatening to boycott the fork unless it stops support for Office Open XML.

I am not so much interested here about whether the support for the format is desirable. Probably, those talking of a boycott are right that it helps Microsoft, but many users are going to want the support, and any alternative to Microsoft Office that lacks it is going to be seriously handicapped. The pros and cons need to be seriously debated before a decision is made.

Unfortunately, that is not what is happening. Instead, LibreOffice, which was being widely viewed as preferable to a few weeks ago, is now being viewed with suspicion — although its founders have never concealed their affiliations.

Even worse, that suspicion is being voiced with an arrogance that prevents it being discussed and any common ground for finding a solution. It is as though, with Novell being out of reached, the sense of betrayal focuses on the more accessible LibreOffice. The fact that LibreOffice is accessible because it is acting like a FOSS project, not a corporation, only adds a note of irony to events.

That is where naivety about corporations leads: not just to a feeling of betrayal, but to division within the community, and to increased difficulty in working together for a solution — to a damaging of FOSS itself.

Corporations and Individuals

You do not have to be an open source advocate as opposed to a free software one to be concerned about this situation. FOSS is now inextricably intertwined with corporations, and, without corporate support, it would not be nearly as advanced today as it is. Nor is this relationship likely to change, since the benefits on both sides are obvious.

Right now, though, FOSS supporters are acting like a turtle whose memory is so short that, each time it circles its bowl, it sees the view for the first time.

Instead of viewing some corporations as friends, the FOSS community needs to see them as allies. The difference is that while friends generally have the same values or motivations, allies can share goals but for different reasons.

The United States and the Soviet Union did not have to agree on economic philosophies to unite against Nazi Germany. Neither should FOSS and corporations have to be in perfect agreement when having common goals is enough reason for cooperation.

The point is that the community needs to recognize that the alliance is probably temporary, and does not imply common values.

When a company acts as a good citizen of the community, it can be applauded in the hopes that it will continue to behave in the same way. However, the community should never forget that the corporation may very well change. Forced to make a choice between community values and its own motivation of profit, nine times out of ten a company is going to choose profit. When that happens, it will probably stop being a FOSS ally.

So what is the solution? Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, suggests that the community should place its faith in individuals rather than corporations.

Talking a few weeks ago about the ways that companies circumvent the spirit of FOSS while keeping to the letter of its licenses, Brown told me, “Do not trust corporations. They don’t have the values that we have as individuals.”

His point was that, while working with corporations can benefit FOSS, when a company is FOSS friendly, it is usually because of the enthusiasm of an individual. When that individual leaves or takes a new position, their replacement may make the company less of an ally. As someone who has worked with most of the companies involved with FOSS over the years, Brown advises simply, “Trust individuals.”

In other words, the FOSS community needs to stop mistaking corporations for people, and see them as they really are. Once we lower our expectations, we will not only suffer far less angst, but also view corporations and deal with them far more realistically than we do now.

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