Open Source is a (Mostly) Spin-Free Zone

The scizophrenic ramblings of the SCO Group over the past six months or so have been sometimes worrisome, sometimes comical, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes confusing. What they have not been, at least for this interested observer, is compelling. Granted, I am not a lawyer, so I do not have a firm grasp on the legal issues involved. Likewise, I am not privy to the contractual documents between IBM and SCO and Novell and whoever. Finally, while I can program, as noted in a previously written piece, I am not a Linux kernel hacker, nor have I made any contributions to the UNIX code base. Thus, I do not have the technical expertise to render a valid opinion on the source of programming code in the Linux kernel.

What I believe I do posess, however, is the ability to "filter" through a lot of verbage and derive the real meaning of that which is being said, even if it is "between the lines". Setting aside the contractual issues between IBM and SCO and concentrating only on the issue of copyright infringement, what I filter out of the discourse, if you can even call it as such, is that the Linux community is more than happy and willing to remove any infringing code while SCO is absolutely determined to keep any infringing code in Linux so that it can collect "fees" from users or distributors or whoever. SCO's language certainly does not indicate that they are interested in having any code removed from Linux, thus it is very difficult to find their arguments compelling.

This article is not, however, really about SCO or the SCO-Linux issues. Rather, it is about the bigger issue of honesty and integrity. While today's situation is probably in reality no better or no worse than it has ever been, it seems that we are inundated with "spin". Spin, of course, is essentially a good face on something that is not really all that good. Politicians have always utilized spin, and it more and more has found its way into the commercial realm with companies trying to keep their skeletons tucked away in their closets. While perhaps a bit of a grey area, the problem in my mind is that spin is essentially dishonest and, based on the cynicism and skepticism it has created, it is generally seen for what it is, which is a half-truth at best, and outright dishonesty at worst.

Spin seems to be everywhere in the commercial technology sector. One the most egregious violations was from Apple Computer in the pre-OS X days. I remember being at an Apple seminar in which an audience member noted that the Macintosh operating system did not have "real" multitasking, referring to the OS' lack of preemptive multitasking. The Apple representative made a long and passionate argument that if the system could perform multiple tasks at once, then it did "real" multitasking and that users were well served. Other Apple executives at the time made the same argument. Of course, most of us knew this was baloney, as the benefits of "real" multitasking as incorporated into OS X is clearly demonstrative of the numerous usability benefits of preemption. Surprisingly, and to their credit, Apple of late has been one of the more trustworthy of vendors.

Microsoft is well known as a master spinster. I recall on many occassions hearing how bugs or security lapses were actually "features" requested by and used by their users who, naturally, are the principle drivers of their software development plans. And, just recently, we have SCO's reaction to HP's offer to indemnify their Linux users against liabilities resulting from SCO's action, which was to essentially to state that HP's actions derived from their recognition of the soundness of SCO's claims. Does anyone really think that HP would take an action from which it believed it would likely lose money? My reading, which is quite different from SCO's, is that HP feels there is little risk in their action, thus implying that they put little value into SCO's claims.

Open source software, by and large, has a very minimal spin factor. There are some companies, thankfully few in number, that attempt to profit in the open source realm with half-truths and false innuendos. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of projects, and even most of the commercial companies build around open source, seem to tell things the way they really are. When the core of your product offerings are available for all to see, it is difficult to engage in "cover ups".

Maybe this has something to do with engineers dominating the culture of open source projects. The engineers that I have known have typically been pretty straight-forward people. They tend to be pretty open when talking about strengths and weaknesses and accepting of the fact that it may take time and patience to rectify deficiencies. Of course, they are simultaneously confident that deficiencies will get addressed, as long as they have the opportunity to make fixes.

As a user of technology, the nature of this culture is very reassuring. When the PostgreSQL core development team releases a new version of the relational database management system and claims that it is ready for production use, I believe them. When Linus Torvalds says that a new major version of Linux is ready for production use, I believe him. Even after the first few 2.0 releases of the Apache httpd server were not exactly stellar, I had faith that in the developers proclamations about the quality of their software, a faith that I continue to have. That is, even though open source developers release the occassional "bad egg" to the public, the statements of the developers tend to be trustworthy since they tend not to have hidden agendas.

Commercial entities sometimes forget just how important trust is to the working of any economy and any exchange of money for goods and services. When spin grows to the point where the customer becomes cyncial and mistrusting, the customer will seek alternatives. Granted, trust is not the only reason for open source's success, but at least for this decision-maker, it is one of the main attractions. Overall open source is what it purports to be. This is an important differentiating factor.