Open source is for making things new, not competing directly with what already exists

Brian, this is an interesting piece, but alas, I believe you’re wrong. Open source provides a good alternative to proprietary software, but it doesn’t provide a good alternative to proprietary services. Modern internet services are so much more than the software that enables them.

I first made this point in a debate with Richard Stallman at the Wizards of OS conference in Berlin in 1999 (scroll down for details.) I pointed out to him that the rules of the game had changed — that even if you had all of Google’s software, you wouldn’t have Google. Not only was there data at massive scale, requiring a huge amount of infrastructure, there was also a set of business processes requiring constant operational excellence, and constant update and revision. And finally, there are persistent brand preferences to overcome.

I saw this in play when I was on the board of Nutch, Doug Cutting’s open source search engine. He eventually came to exactly the same conclusion — that he couldn’t get to the scale to compete.

You might argue that services like Uber and Lyft are different — the data they use (like maps and routing) are a commodity. But the driver network most certainly is not. It is the point of hottest competition between the services. If you can’t provide consistent driver supply at any time that a consumer is looking for a ride, then you aren’t in the game. Not only that, consumer brand preference is hard to change. People who’ve chosen Uber don’t bother setting up Flywheel.

This isn’t to say that an open source version of the logistics engines behind companies like Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be a super-useful contribution. They would enable new kinds of services that are not currently being offered.

In general, the notion that “if x is a successful proprietary product, an open source x will replace it” is one of the great failures of open source thinking.

If you think about it, that’s what happened even with Linux. While the Linux partisans were focusing all their energy on competing with Windows on the desktop, other folks went on to use it as a platform to build new things, like Google, Amazon, and all the other services the world now takes for granted.

This was the pattern I discussed in my 2003 talk and 2004 essay The Open Source Paradigm Shift.

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