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Science versus Capitalism: The Open Source Debate

SYDNEY -- A verbal war between Microsoft Senior VP, Craig Mundie and Operating System impresario Linus Torvalds has erupted over the validity of Open Source software. Just how much of the argument has merit?

The icy exchange began when Mundie labeled Open Source software a by product of the failed dotcom era - where companies rushed to give away their core product and make money on value added solutions and services. Clearly, the conjecture is tenuous at best.

Firstly, Mundie is evaluating for-profit Open Source enterprises and not the wider movement. Moreover, he applied financial metrics and neglected quality of software issues. Sure, the share price charts of VA Linux and Redhat may look like ski jumps but that's hardly new. In a classic bout of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), Mundie has taken the opportunity to associate other non-related aspects of Open Source to the financial struggles of a few.

Mundie's second argument relates to the software license in which Open Source software is distributed. The General Public License (GPL) includes a clause whereby any additional code added on to a GPL'd product must be distributed under the GPL license as well. In his white paper, Mundie labelled this clause a "theft of intellectual property."

Again it's not too hard to see the bias in his perspective, and that's what it comes down to. Mundie sees software in a commercial sense, and Torvalds sees it in the realm of science. Clearly, the two are diametrically opposed. In that sense, Mundie is not right or wrong and the same holds for Torvalds, their opinions are merely misdirected.

Something worth exploring further are Mundie's comments on Intellectual Property (IP). The GPL license (the de facto standard of Open Source software) ostensibly drives the cost of software down to zero. This is because the distribution guidelines in the license allow any party to distribute the software at whatever cost they choose.

If we believe that resources are allocated to the greatest opportunity, then commercial incentive is absolutely key to quality software. In theory, if companies are not able to charge for software, then companies will not create as many software products and the industry is worse off.

The most relevant example here is the pharmaceutical industry whereby companies develop medical drugs to profit, yet also help the great good of mankind. It would be a very long bow to draw similar parallels to Microsoft, however my point is made.

On the other hand, Open Source software can clearly produce a higher quality and more secure software product. In that sense, perhaps a quasi-Open Source model needs to be developed? Your suggestions via our commenting feature are most welcome.

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