There are technology purists who â€“ no matter what Microsoft does â€“ will believe them evil. After all, they charge for their software.
Linuxâ€™ most compelling argument has been that â€“ for the same power as Microsoft â€“ you get a free product. Only tech junkies can really use the extra features in Linux, and most people buy something to use, not to modify, so editing source-code is of no interest to them.
Now Bill Gates has announced that Microsoft is bundling a complete suite of software and selling it to emerging market governments for US$3 apiece. In this his business strategy is flawless and honours his roots. DOS was given away free to schools throughout the 80s, which is how I became proficient in it as a child here in South Africa.
The Open-Source movement has defined itself virtually entirely as in opposition to established commercial software companies. Their language mimics the struggle language of political resistance movements. And it is inherently flawed.
Why when a motor company is charging for the products of its labour shouldnâ€™t a software company â€“ whose product is used in the manufacture of those vehicles â€“ be paid for theirs? Why should the employees of that software company be forced to work for free?
The militancy of thought and ideal within the open-source movement reminds one of fascist political movements with their calls to arms and declarations that the enemy is upon us.
Lest we forget, Umberto Eco, in his seminal â€œFive Moral Piecesâ€, lists a few of the signs that you may be in the presence of a fascist ideal:
1. A rejection of modernism and the capitalist way of life
How can the open-source movement be accused of rejecting modernism? But there it is; software is only a small and superficial component of modern society which includes all the systems and processes that allows a vast complexity of people â€“ with all their different cultures and beliefs â€“ to live and work together. The power of modernism is in its ability to distribute what people want to where they want it. The open-source movement relies entirely on infrastructure created by earlier entrepreneurs and capitalists: electricity, communications cables, electronic hardware manufacture, and the systems of law and economics that allow a company in South Korea to comfortably manufacture to order for a US engagement. While ignoring all that modern capitalism makes possible, Open-Source chooses a specific slither of that economy and attacks it as if it represents the whole.
2. Dissent is betrayal
Microsoft is the Ã¼ber-enemy. When Microsoft distributed free notebook computers to popular bloggers as a promotion the open-source community went up in arms at the suggestion that Microsoft was attempting to buy popularity and questioning the morality and propriety of all who had accepted these pcs. Yet the open-source movement is all about free stuff. Microsoft certainly recognises the danger of engaging with a movement that despises them, yet they did so anyway. And the movement responded as if mere engagement was betrayal.
3. The appeal to the frustrated poor and middle classes
The open-source movement appeals to the needs of the poor. Their claims that massive profits take cash away from the poor and give it to companies and individuals already making massive profits. Their right to freely remix popular songs or redistribute copyrighted material is a form of struggle against oppression. Yet this is not a problem that the poor of the world have. If they go to bed hungry it is because of a lack of food, not software. This is where the argument becomes the weakest with the One-Laptop-Per-Child campaign attempting to engage with African governments who deny their citizens any education at all. It is simplistic and naÃ¯ve to imagine that profits equates with theft. Poverty is caused by a myriad of things.
Manuel Castells, on visiting South Africa, was asked by the government, â€œWhat do we need to do to participate in this digital world?â€ To which the wise man responded with devastating candour, â€œIf Africa wants to enter, then recognise that across the whole of Africa there are as many telephones as in New York. If you want reliable connectivity then you need a reliable electricity grid. If you want a reliable grid then the biggest inhibitory factor is the absence of peace. If you want to move Africa to the centre, then do these: establish peace, build democracy, and create freedom.â€
4. An obsession with conspiracies
This is almost self-evident. If Microsoft charges for their products it is because they are stealing form the weak. If Microsoft gives most of its profits away to charity then it is simply attempting to buy good will. The big music companies are conspiring against public trade in their products. Governments act to protect big business at the expense of the needs of the people.
All of these are beliefs that call on the need to be permanently besieged by enemies all around.
5. The enemy is both too strong and too weak
The open-source movement believes it is dealing with agencies raised against it that are both inimically entrenched but that they can still be easily defeated. It is a self-defeating delusion since it means that, by defining themselves entirely in relationship to their enemies, the movement can never be anything. They are also incapable of assessing the real purpose, activities or endeavours of their self-defined enemies. Microsoftâ€™s dramatic gesture of giving software to developing nations will be treated with disdain and not the applause it deserves.
6. Scorn for the weak
Obviously, anyone using a commercial product or paying for it must be brainwashed or simple. No matter how difficult or clutzy free software may be, it is still infinitely preferable to the soft laziness inherent in the commercial. As such the open-source movement believes themselves to be a select elite. Their attitude to the general public â€“ the same people they claim to represent â€“ is at once patronising and scornful. The feel â€œsorryâ€ for those of us still caught in the web of commercial interests.
7. Machismo and sexual transfer
The open-source movement is driven by a bunch of skinny male geeks. They donâ€™t get out enough and they donâ€™t meet enough women. Machismo, as Eco says, â€œimplies contempt for womenâ€ and so it is no surprise that the Internet is largely a place for the exchange of pornographic images.
8. â€œQualitative populismâ€ must oppose the corruption of parliamentary government
The Internet loves voting and you would imagine that this implies a form of direct democracy. Yet, despite all this voting, the people participating in these activities are a minority amongst the societies in which they live. Access and general engagement with the medium implies a particular economic status, and the interests define the individuals involved. All this voting and activity misleads this community into believing that they represent the popular will of all the people everywhere. They are continually surprised by popular political elections voting for candidates they donâ€™t agree with or returning responses of which they donâ€™t approve.
Clearly vote rigging is the norm and parliaments are inherently corrupt. Every time a popular open-source leader casts doubt on the legitimacy of parliaments there is a whiff of fascism.
9. Fascism uses Newspeak
All fascist movements have been based on poor vocabulary and elementary syntax with the hope of reducing the language available for dissent and reasoning. Blogs, with their derivative containment of the ideas of others, and their banal contempt for society, are a pure expression of this.
When any new idea stops being about the pursuit of genuine opportunity and becomes a self-reflecting idealism â€“ that the idea itself has value by virtue of its enunciation â€“ then we no longer have popular engagement.
For all the screaming about free software, it must be of continual shame to the open-source movement that there are more freely purchased versions of commercial software in regular use, then there are freely downloaded versions of open-source software.
More South Africans use MXit â€“ a paid SMS chat tool â€“ than use email.
The greatest incentive that anyone ever came up with is the idea of profit. The surest proof of the popularity of one idea over that of another is when a person faced with that choice chooses â€“ voluntarily and uncoerced â€“ to part with their own money in preference of one over the other.
As a market strategy â€“ as Microsoft has proven â€“ giving away your product to encourage use and gain support is brilliant. To claim that this is an end unto itself is spurious.
And the surest proof of this are the words on every single open-source project home-page: donate here.