Is Co-Existence Possible? The Collaboration Gene and the Greed Gene
OSS and proprietary software have carved out their own niches in the kingdom of software.
The evolutionary selection pressures on OSS are quite different from those shaping proprietary species. In the case of OSS, selection pressure is about successful collaboration within its user or developer community: only software that attracts contributors survives. In proprietary software, the selection pressure is driven entirely by user purchasing decisions: only market successes survive. These differing criteria — user participation vs. market success — are surprisingly complementary because they address different legitimate user needs.
The Greed Gene Says No to Co-Existence
“The success of excess is fragile and temporary.”
When one species of software goes predatory and threatens to wipe out all competitors, the potential for complementary co-existence degrades while the ecosystem fails to meet the totality of users’ needs. Extreme predatory behavior, driven by the “greed gene”, can suffocate alternatives like OSS under a blanket of fear, uncertainty and doubt.
The Collaboration Gene Says Yes to Co-Existence
OSS is guided by a gentler “collaboration gene”. The collaboration gene produces a multi-cellular software organism which uses collaboration to create a shared base upon which higher levels of self-interest can be realized. Self-interest is pursued at the services layer of the software body. In addition, some OSS projects like Apache, Mozilla or dual-license companies encourage cross breeding with proprietary interests. But even here, the collaboration gene seems to build a gentler and more flexible community.
But the collaboration gene is not expressed uniformly. Across the multitude of OSS species, variations in licenses serve to maintain boundaries to ensure genetic integrity but at the same time create isolated communities. Some licenses, like the GPL, strive to prevent attenuation of their gene pools. Other licenses, like BSD, trade strict protection of their gene pool for wider dissemination. While so many licenses and their communities may seem wasteful, variation better serves the long range survival of the whole OSS ecosystem. Choice is, with good reason, a major adaptation strategy of OSS.
OSS diehards may wish to see the greed gene, with its manifestation as proprietary software, replaced by the superior collaboration gene. However, proprietary alternatives can offer innovation evolved through ruthless competition and unrelenting market pressures. Often stunning ideas like the Apple iPod emerge out of this cauldron of dog-eat-dog. Even OSS can benefit by emulating the best examples created from this competitive process, all the while adding its own contributions to the mix.
The immediate problem facing the software ecosystem is not that a greed gene exists, but that it is being overplayed. Proprietary players have become too big and, in some cases, are out-of-control. For market checks-and-balances to operate effectively, it is critical to maintain the balance of real choice.
Choice in software is vital for healthy market competition. OSS hastens commoditization of mature technologies so that the next levels of problems and solutions can evolve. Furthermore, OSS itself creates knowledge and solves interesting and important problems, like re-inventing the supercomputer. Some proprietary vendors are blindly trying to squeeze out all competition and variation. But this only weakens the ecosystem for everyone. Fortunately, as the fossil record attests, the success of excess is fragile and temporary.