Embedded Systems December 2000 Vol13_13

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Jack G. Ganssle Open Source vs. Proprietary We make free software affordable. A moun tain of wisdom is buried in this tag line from Cygnus (now part of Red Hat), wi th more than a dollop of cynicism to boot. It comes to mind every time a wildly enthusiastic open- source advocate tells me how free code, or GPLed code, or any other variant of the "no charge" software thrust will save the universe. Unhappi ly, the open-source phe- nomena is clouded by too much pas- sion. Richard Stallman-truly a pas- sionate evangelist- is no doubt the visionary and prime mover behind the free software movement (www.Jsfo-rg), which, in my opinion, confuses the issues behi nd open-source. Hi view of "[ree software" is quite at odds with what most people believe when dis- cussing open-source code. Quotes like the following are sim- plistic and na·ive: "As a computer user today, you may find yourself using a proprietary program. If your friend asks to make a copy, it would be wrong to refuse. Cooperation is more impor- I:.:U1t than copyright. "l Admitted ly, th is quote is tempered by the fo llowing sentence: "But underground, closet cooperation does not make for a good society. A person should aspire to live an upright life openly with pride, and this means saying 'No' to proprietary software. " I do agree that copyright issues in the digital age are hugely problematical, and are ome thing we've just got to try to resolve. But advocating theft seems ethically wrong as well as self defeating. Piracy in the name of freeing the software is akin to "liberating" TV sets in times of civil unrest. In the last decade, we've seen sev- e ral entirely new business models predicated on free code. Cygnus and ing spent mill ions developing a prod- uct that gives a competitive advan- tage, will then release all of that ha rd-won intellectual capi tal to the publi c domain. When it's code ve ry specific to a particula r domain-say, a new kind of soda machine-few Cost is not everything, says Jack, weighing in on open source. The price of software is less impor- tant than the amount of value it has for you. Red Hat, for example, created bri l- liant companies sell ing adj uncts li ke support and consulting to the free- bies. Netscape used a free browser to gain tremendous marke t sha re . Stallman claims success in sell ing his consulting services to maintain free code. This movement has created a viable business model, but it's far from the only way of running a company. ProprietalJ' code has a place, one that I can 't ee ever disappeari ng. Arguing that companies must adopt new business strategies to deal with a philo ophy of free code makes for great beery debates, but is largely in ef- fective. Businesses do, and must, adopt models that allow for profi ts (in a cap- italistic economy). The software is a means to that end. Embedded appli ca tio ns will almost certain ly be a bastion of pro- prie tary software. Few CEOs,just hav- people would even be inte rested in the firmware. If inte llectual capi tal is tru ly an asse t, it's one that managers will want to protect; often with good reason. Value vs. cost Ye t, while compani es circle the wag- ons to protect their rights to propri- etary code, somehow none manage to put a value o n th eir intellectual cap ital. Even Microsoft, whose real ne t worth is clearly in their softwa re base, doesn ' t have an e ntry on their balance sheet for th e value of tha t code . They do count d esks and buildings, thin gs of no ma te ria l importance to ma king the company what it is. Until th e SEC and accounting groups find a way to recognize intel- lectual property as a component of Embedded Systems Programming DECEMBER 2000 187

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