Getting Flat, Part 1

by Doc Searls

"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 Senior Editor of Linux Journal and writes the monthly Linux for Suits column. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

Load Disqus comments

Firstwave Cloud