Getting Flat, Part 1

Our Senior Editor digs into Tom Friedman's new bestseller, from a Linux/open source angle.

"It's a Flat World, After All", Tom Friedman says. That's the title of his long essay in this past Sunday's New York Times magazine. A few days earlier, his new book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, hit the book stores. I have a copy right here at my left elbow. In support of our local book store, I paid the full price for the hardcover, which weighs in at close to 500 pages. At this point I've read most of it, including everything it says about Linux, GNU/Linux free software and open source.

The World is Flat, which I abbreviate TWIF, in the manner of Eric Raymond's CaTB, may be the most important book written to date on all the subjects in the last sentence. First, it makes clear sense of all those subjects. Second, it puts them in a large and highly meaningful context--the flat new world--where they clearly have enormous on-going roles to play. Third, it's already a bestseller: #3 on Amazon, as of yesterday.

The book is the subject of my July Linux For Suits column in Linux Journal, which I have been writing for way too long, severely indulging the patience of Jill Franklin, our Managing Editor. But I am so jazzed about the subject that I can't stand leaving all my thoughts about it in the buffer for another three months. Fortunately, I have enough material to fill ten columns and SuitWatches. Mercifully, we're limiting our exploration to one print column and two SuitWatches. This is the first of those. After this essay is published as a SuitWatch, it will appear as a Linux Journal Web site feature. Comments should go there. The same procedure will follow with Part 2, two weeks from now.

The two-part format also works thematically. The first part deals with Tom Friedman's treatment of Linux and open source. The second will deal with the solutions to flat-world challenges he hopes will come from both large companies and our educational system.

So, on to the first matter.

Tom says the world is being flattened by ten forces, of which open source is one. Here are the chapter headings that outline his larger case. Each is labeled a "flattener":

  1. 11/9/89 - When the Walls Came Down and the Windows Went Up

  2. 8/9/95 - When Netscape Went Public

  3. Work Flow Software - Let's Do Lunch: Have Your Application Talk to My Application

  4. Open-Sourcing - Self-Organizing Collaborative Communities

  5. Outsourcing - Y2K

  6. Offshoring - Running with the Gazelles, Eating with Lions

  7. Supply-Chaining - Eating Sushi in Arkansas

  8. Insourcing - What the Guys in Funny Brown Shorts Are Really Doing

  9. In-forming - Google, Yahoo!, MSN Web Search

  10. The Steroids - Digital, Mobile, Personal and Virtual

After the first three, Tom offers a summary titled Genesis: The Flat World Platform Emerges. Here he says:

We need to stop here and take stock, because at this point--the mid-1990s--the platform for the flattening of the world has started to emerge. First, the falling walls, the opening of Windows, the digitization of content, and the spreading of the Internet browser seamlessly connected people with people as never before...

When you add this unprecedented new level of people-to-people communication to all these Web-based application-to-application work-flow programs, you end up with a whole new global platform for multiple forms of collaboration. This is the Genesis moment for the flattening of the world... "It is the creation of this platform, with these unique attributes, that is the truly important sustainable breakthrough that made what you call the flattening of the world possible," said Microsoft's Craig Mundie...

The next six flatteners represent the new forms of collaboration which this new platform empowered. As I show, some people will use this platform for open-sourcing, some for outsourcing, some for insourcing, and some for in-forming. Each of these forms of collaboration was either made possible by the new platform or greatly enhanced by it...

Before I join you in the obvious critiques of this, let's hear out Tom together, by delving a bit into what he says in his chapter on Open-Sourcing:

The word "open-source" comes from the notion that companies or ad hoc groups would make available online the source code--the underlying programming instructions that make a piece of software work--and then let anyone who has something to contribute improve it and let millions of others just download it for their own use for free. While commercial software is copyrighted and sold, and companies guard the source code as they would their crown jewels so they can charge money to anyone who wants to use it and thereby generate income to develop new versions, open-source software is shared, constantly improved by its users, and made available for free to anyone. In return, every user who comes up with an improvement--a patch that makes this software sing or dance better--is encouraged to make that patch available to every other user for free.

Not being a computer geek, I had never focused much on the open-source movement, but when I did, I discover it was an amazing universe of its own, with communities of online, come-as-you-are volunteers who share their insights with one and other and then offer it to the public for nothing. They do it because they want something the market doesn't offer them; they do it for the psychic buzz that comes from creating a collective product that can beat something produced by giants like Microsoft or IBM, and--even more important--to earn the respect of their intellectual peers. Indeed, these guys and gals are one of the most interesting and controversial forms of collaboration that have been facilitated by the flat world, and are flattening it even more.

The problem here and throughout the book lies in Tom's big-company frame of reference. As (I can only assume) a Windows user, and as a widely traveled fellow who no doubt sees approximately everybody in the world using Windows, he grants Microsoft a degree of importance it does not deserve, in a domain it did little to develop: namely, the Net, which is the flat anvil on which all the other flattening forces he profiles hammer down--with the single exception of open source.

What he misses is that the practices, values, traditions, standards, protocols and products that created the Net also are those of what we now call the Free Software and Open Source movements. Yes, commercial interests were involved. Paul Kunz of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) gives an excellent talk (see Resources) about the history of the World Wide Web, of the role played by high energy physics laboratories (including SLAC and CERN, where Tim Berners-Lee created the Web) and of the roles played by largely uncredited commercial interests, such as IBM (with BITNET), NeXT (providing the machines on which the Web first ran) and Digital Equipment Corp. (With machines and various Decants). In summary, he says, "Use of the backbone remains free, and ARPANET open-source culture persists."

Let's face it: if it were up to commercial interests alone, Microsoft especially, the Net we now know never would have come into being. Instead we'd have a forest of silos such as the one that still comprises the instant messaging "market", where few of the silos--notably Apple's and AOL's--communicate with one another. One small encouraging development: Apple's iChat now supports Jabber's IETF-sanctioned XMPP protocol.

So the credit emphasis is a bit off.

Yes, the fall of the Berlin Wall was enormously important. And so was Netscape's browser. Tom says, "As browsing and the Internet in general grew, Netscape wanted to make sure that Microsoft, with its huge market dominance, would not be able to shift these Web protocols to proprietary standards that only Microsoft's servers would be able to handle."

He credits the "alphabet soup" protocols--TCP/IP HTTP, FTP, SSL, POP--with due importance; but then places extraordinary emphasis on Netscape's role in commercializing and securing the ubiquity of those and other protocols. Kudos to the Netscape folks withstanding, there was an intentionality behind those protocols and many other Net standards that receives insufficient credit, because no vendor makes a big deal about them. That's because these protocols were products of hacker culture. "We hackers were actively aiming to create new kinds of conversations outside of traditional institutions", Eric Raymond says. "This wasn't an accidental byproduct of doing neat techie stuff; it was an explicit goal for many of us as far back as the 1970s. We intended this revolution."

Tom also falls into the common trap of assuming that open source is fundamentally, rather than secondarily or peripherally, in competition with commercial software, especially Microsoft's. Once trapped, it's easy to characterize open source vs. Microsoft as another sports contest between market leaders. Although some competition does exist, there is far more symbiosis in the real world where we find countless Windows clients making use of open-source infrastructure and open-source products, as well.

In his open source chapter, Tom shows that he does understand open source quite deeply, especially for a non-technical journalist. He writes," As I will repeat often in this book: There is no future for vanilla for most companies in the flat world. A lot of vanilla making in software and other areas ins going to shift to open-source communities. For most companies, the commercial future belongs to those who know how to make the richest chocolate sauce, the sweetest, lightest whipped cream...." He then goes on to quote Novell chairman Jack Messman from a Financial Times story: "Commercial software companies have to start operating further up the [software] stack to differentiate themselves. The open source community is basically focusing on infrastructure."

He also credits open source with a contagious value system:

The striking thing about the intellectual commons form of open-sourcing is how quickly it has morphed into other spheres and spawned other self-organizing communities, which are flattening hierarchies in their areas. I see this most vividly in the news profession, where bloggers, one person online commentators... have created a kind of open-source newsroom.

He goes on to treat Wikipedia with all due open-source respect, pointing out, among many other things, that its launch followed Jimmy Wales' failed attempt to create a "voluntary, but strictly controlled free encyclopedia".

One witnesses the power of Wikipedia in the section that follows, where Tom gets into the free software movement: "In 1984, according to Wikipedia, an MIT researcher and one of these ex-hackers, Richard Stallman..." After which Linux becomes GNU/Linux. In this section, Tom doesn't deviate much in his account from the free software canon.

But then he gets into vendor sports again:

The free software movement has become a serious challenge to Microsoft and some other big global software players...

Why would so many people be ready to write software that would be given away for free? Partly it is out of the pure scientific challenge, which should never be underestimated. Partly it is because they all hate Microsoft for the way it has so dominated the market and, in the view of many techies, bullied everyone else. Partly it is because they believe that open-source software can be kept more fresh and bug free than any commercial software, because of the way it is constantly updated by an army of unpaid programmers. And partly it is because some big tech companies are paying engineers to work on Linux and other software, hooping it will cut into Microsoft's market share and make it a weaker competitor all around...

Until now, the Linux operating system was the best-known success among open-source free software projects challenging Microsoft. But Linux is largely used by big corporate data centers, not individuals. However, in November 2004, the Mozilla foundation...

And he goes on to tell the Firefox story. From there to the end of the chapter, he presents the other-hand response from Microsoft, wrapping with this:

As The Economist mused (June 10, 2004), "some zealots even argue that the open-source approach represents a new post-capitalist model of production."

That may prove true. But if it does, then we have some huge global governance issues to sort out over who owns what and how individuals and companies will profit from their creations.

So it looks as though Microsoft has convinced him, at least for now, that open source is somehow anti-business or anti-capitalism, when it is neither.

The fact is, or will be, far more money will be made because of open source than will be made with open source--or with any of the infrastructural (in Tom's words, vanilla) software it replaces. Think of open-source infrastructure as a huge, flat cake on which you can build a vast new market for any kind of topping you like. A cake which, by the way, only gets bigger.

We have another word for that cake, one I know Tom likes: a marketplace. The open-source marketplace isn't for open-source goods. It's for what you can build on them and with them. There's no telling how big that market will be. We do know, though, that it's flat and seems to go on forever in all directions.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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Friedman/Open source

Daniel's picture

Friedman's comments on open source are fairly typical of his overall philosophy in The World is Flat.

Globalization: it's all good, get used to it. There are no other options. Sweeping generalization upon more sweeping generalization.

Open Source: nice idea, but those damned purists need a little "Microsofting" to take them to the college of how to make a buck, and stop giving away the store.

The never ending groveling to the big dogs, the whole "everybody better wake up" pontificating left me clear on that fact that Tom Friedman is simply what you get from a lifetime of privilege: another cocktail party dandy with a million stories all designed to demonstrate how clever and hip he is. Another sycophant pretending to be a novel thinker.

pointed use of false rhetoric

Toby's picture

Friedman refers to an "army of unpaid programmers". Aside from those who may be "unemployed" (another misleading word), we must be being paid somehow, or how would we clothe and feed ourselves, let alone maintain mortgages? I don't like this cheap and underhanded use of words. Or maybe it's just carelessness. It's not the first time I've seen attempts to weave FUD around a "how can you trust people who don't get paid" feint.

It is "market economics", just not money.

Bob Robertson's picture

The only reason that the socialists try to call "OpenSource" "post-capitalistic" is because they don't understand capitalism. They want "it" to fail, so they use any example they can to bad mouth "it".

FOSS is merely information. FOSS is not an economic good, because it is not scarce. Scarcity is what allows for people to assign comparative value and thus price. So this "flat" world is simply an information infrastructure based on non-scarcity. Non-scarcity benefits everyone, everywhere, which is the true point of Tom Friedman's book. This is why copyright and patent laws cause so much damage, they impose artificial scarcity.

But capitalism is merely the private ownership of the means of production, be they material or intellectual. My choice to contribute to a FOSS project remains my choice, therefore I am acting as a capitalist. It is my judgement whether what I receive in return, be it renown or skill improvement, or merely that the tool now fulfills my particular needs better than it did, is worth the trade for my labors.

Read Beowulf to understand how personally valuable renown can be, because true good will is so scarce.

See especially _Human Action_.

The book is appallingly badly written

Nix's picture

Alas, Friedman's actual writing ability is... negligible, which renders his book quite unreadable, to me at least. It should never have left the slush pile without a rewrite (and without Friedman's name on it, it wouldn't have).

A good roundup of the (purely literary) reasons why mentioning his name will make many people blanch is given in a recent Making Light article.

excellent article

Bill Kaiser's picture

As an admirer of Tom Friedman's writing and as a director of RedHat, I greatly enjoyed your analysis of his new book, which I ordered as soon as I read your comments! Well-done....

Great Article

tadelste's picture

In a discussion recently with one of the major IT companies, Doc's name kept coming up as the most widely read open source journalist/writer. Friedman should be honored to get a web article written about his book by Doc.

Anyone who doesn't read this article is missing out huge! I've heard Friedman being interviewed on NPR recently and they guy has so much insight. Doc captures the spirit and essence of the flatter world experience.

As the first Linux magazine, Linux Journal carries serious prestige and it's best writer should be a given for anyone hitting this web site or getting the print version.

Thank you Doc for the many years of great stuff and for your commitment to continuing to bring us the best and most intelligent insights into this Linux open-source paradigm.


Understanding open source economics

Jack Carroll's picture

Business people might understand the open source phenomenon better if its economics were ever analyzed properly. A lot of what goes on in our community happens for perfectly rational, selfish reasons that even Ayn Rand could applaud. The thing that makes this so hard to recognize at first glance is that the economic parameters of software collaboration are so different from those of the commerce and manufacturing that classical capitalism was formulated to explain, that it all needs a fresh look.
For instance, the falling cost of media and the I/O devices that write on them has brought the per-unit cost of copying to nearly zero. The Internet has bypassed the logistics of traditional distribution, nearly wiping out that cost -- especially when cooperative protocols like bittorrent enter the picture. Direct collaboration that includes user participation not only wipes out the cost of market research, it prevents marketing organizations from blocking the fulfilment of users' requirements. And finally, practically all the cost of authoring and selling software within a business organization is attributable to the cost of running the business and collecting the revenue. Eliminate the business infrastructure, and suddenly software creation and collaboration become affordable to unorganized individuals. And why should the individual do this without keeping score in terms of money? Because the individual needs the software itself, and the only way to get it is to write it, or to enhance what someone else has written. The situation isn't all that different for a business that needs a piece of software, and isn't in the business of selling software -- once it's written, the most rewarding thing to do with the source code is publish it and invite improvements.
Pure economic optimization, all the way.

Friedman writes: While comme

Felix Deutsch's picture

Friedman writes:
While commercial software is copyrighted and sold, and companies guard the source code as they would their crown jewels so they can charge money to anyone who wants to use it and thereby generate income to develop new versions, open-source software is shared, constantly improved by its users, and made available for free to anyone.

Except that open-source software is of course copyrighted (or rather copylefted) as well, otherwise the whole GPL "contagious values system" wouldn't work. Trust, but be able to litigate, if I may paraphrase Lenin.

That's just one example.

Friedman is a terribly shallow and lazy thinker, always looking for new ways of fellating the corpocracy or jumping on a (clue)train that has left the station years ago; look no further than here for more evidence.

Your point?

Anonymous's picture

Okay so here is another shallow thinking statememnt backed up by a less than substantive quote.
I was looking back to see if you were looking back to see if I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me............
Hummmm pot calling the ketle black?

Spot on Assessment

Chris Bergeron's picture

Great workup on differentiating copyleft code from packaged corporate software Doc. I totally agree on the slightly off-base nature of the corporate message embedded in those quotes.

With GNU/BSD licensed software at least, the receiver of the codebase is left in complete control. Even Microsoft could grab a copy of the code and configure/support it the same as with the Windows codebase. There's no corporate competition from OSS/Free software, just service companies that sell packages including it.

More than just wanting

Dave Moskovitz's picture

In my experience, the main reason for buying into open source projects goes far beyond "wanting something the market doesn't offer". It's more about servicing business needs quickly. Who can wait for a vendor to respond to a request, when it's so much easier to take pre-existing OSS systems or code and improve them slightly to solve your particular problem? With ever-decreasing timeframes, OSS makes the impossible possible.

Transaction costs are inside corporate environments, too

Anonymous's picture

For an IT professional, it often takes less time to install and configure an open source package than to get approval to "buy" (actually, enter into a license for) a proprietary one.

Transaction costs aren't just between vendor organization and customer organization -- they're within organizations.