Free Software Shines On

The other night, I was watching an episode of Nova on PBS about the present and future of solar power and the major changes in the way we generate and distribute energy that future solar advances will trigger. Predictably enough, the whole thing got me thinking about free and proprietary software and the friction we’re witnessing between these two models in the form of Microsoft’s recent indictments of Linux and open source in the court of public opinion.

The ball of fire that floats in our sky has been providing our planet with free energy for as long as the Earth’s been spinning, but with our current technologies, the most effective way for us to tap this energy is by burning the fossil fuels that stored the Sun’s rays a very long time ago. When we eventually develop the technologies required to make efficient use of the abundant Solar energy in which we’ve always bathed, we’ll see our power generation capabilities grow radically broader.

It’ll seem much less attractive to incur the expense of mining or pumping fossil fuels out of the ground, transporting them to a processing facility, burning them for electricity and pumping that juice to our neighborhoods once we figure out how, for instance, to power our homes by coating them with photo-voltaic nanotube paint. This future model of energy production will prove particularly attractive to the parts of the world that have never had the resources to build the sort of energy infrastructure that drives the developed world.

While the technologies required to harness the Sun’s abundance remain, for now, on the horizon, the means to tap the equally unbounded intellectual potential of people around the world has already been invented–particularly where software is concerned. Just as new energy technologies will cut back on–and, in time, will likely erase–the need for massive, centralized power production infrastructures, the Internet is already dissolving the requirement that software be developed at and distributed from sprawling corporate campuses.

Not surprisingly, the companies who’ve counted on collecting cash from every person who consumes software–chief among these being Microsoft–are regarding these changes with no small measure of discomfort. Microsoft, having amassed the means to tap the unlimited store of human knowledge in a way that hadn’t been possible for just anyone to do, is watching new technologies threaten to open up those unlimited stores of power and profit to anyone.

When faced with such fundamental changes to the environment in which they do business, the power companies of tomorrow, and the proprietary software companies of today, can either determine how to adapt their business models to maintain their relevance, or they can fight to force these new realities into the old, familiar channels through which they’ve profited in the past.

Unfortunately, while Microsoft clearly understands that the software landscape is changing, and while the company has taken some steps to better understand and interface with free software, Microsoft seems to think that they can deal with free software by forcing it into a proprietary software mold. Microsoft’s deal with Novell is meant to direct companies to consume free software in the form of Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise distribution, which, like Windows, comes with per-system license fees and restrictions on unfettered redistribution.

Microsoft is hoping that its FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) campaign surrounding a set of unspecified, unchallenged software patents will convince companies to treat free software as if it were not free, and therefore, not nearly as threatening to Microsoft’s Windows monopoly. Along similar lines, Microsoft has been wrangling with the EU and other government bodies out to reduce their dependence on proprietary standards and protocols to license their de facto standards in such a way that free software could not incorporate this material.

When Microsoft representatives state that everyone must play by the same rules, as they often have during recent months, what the company means is that the business and technological realities under which they’ve built their empire shouldn’t be allowed to change. However, just as the appeal of decentralized solar power will, once technologically feasible, prove irresistible, so too will the tide of free software that’s already begun rolling in prove too powerful to turn back.