Saturday, April 30, 2005

The cost of software

I've recently watched "The Aviator" on DVD. The movie about Howard Hughes. What an interesting personality. After watching the movie I was keen to find out more about the man.

I found an autobiographical link on the web: read it yourself. My conclusion on Howard, is that he was a man caught up with his own self importance, driven by ego. I couldn't help feeling that perhaps he was a victim. Possibly of a over bearing father who expected nothing less than greatness from his only son. Unfortunately the movie and the online autobiography say very little about his childhood. Apart from his affliction with OCD, the sadness of his life for me was that he spent all his time proving himself, and very little time actually living.

After reading about Howard Hughes, I was keen to explore the lives of other very wealthy people to see if I could find a common link. I looked up Bill Gates I expected Bills' autobiography to contain all the signs of an ego centric megalomaniac (Much like Howard Hughes). But it didn't. Pretty dull actually. Bill Gates appears to be your regular nerd. No vision of grandeur. No big I am. It was when I read his open letter to hobbyist programmers written back in 1976 that I got a real insight into the man:

Now Bill Gates is the man we all love to hate (my self included), but reading his letter I realised that he had a point back then. He wanted to produce good software and get it out there to the fledgling personal computer community. What's wrong with that? I found myself asking. To do it he needed good programmers, and good programmers deserve to get paid for what they do. He didn't want people "stealing" his software, especially when they stole and distributed pre-release buggy code - giving him and his software a bad rep.

After reading his letter I now see Bill Gates as the first nerd who cared enough about what he did to elevate software to something valuable, and in common with the producers of other valuable products, he demanded payment.

So how does this sit with the ideals of the open source community? Not sure. I've always seen the common sense in collaboration - working together for the common good. But I always thought that this work should be paid for by the people that benefited from it. For example, a lot of fortune 500 companies could save themselves a lot of money if they worked with each other to generate common software, that they shared (open sourced). They would end up paying the programmers they hired a lot less then they currently pay software vendors like Oracle. The idea of programmers writing code in their spare time for free, and then "donating" it to their employers never made sense to me.

Some people have used open source as a means of bootstrapping a services business, JBoss comes to mind. This is a neat idea, but the few JBoss consultants that actually get paid, are leveraging the work of an whole army of programmers out there that never see a penny. So my question is why do they do it? The programmers I mean. What motivates them?

My guess is that many in the open source community may have more in common with Howard Hughes, then Bill Gates does. The ego boost of having their code used and worshiped by their peers is perhaps payment enough.

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