FOSS, Business, and Psychopathy: Page 2

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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.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, FOSS, Novell

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