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Information wants to be free

© November 2003 Tony Lawrence

Information wants to be free -- because it is now so easy to copy and distribute casually -- and information wants to be expensive -- because in an Information Age, nothing is so valuable as the right information at the right time.

- Stewart Brand

The first part of that quote has often been a rallying cry of the Open Source folks, and the second part is often the response they get from the folks who sell rather than share.

While not arguing with the idea that information can be very valuable, I do think we are at the beginning of a major shift in that regard.

First, Stewart Brand was wrong: information wants to be free not because "it is now so easy to copy and distribute casually". It has always wanted to be free or, more accurately, we have always wanted information to be free. Still more accurately, what we really wanted was that other people's information be freely available to us. Whether or not we wanted to share our own intellectual property depended upon what was in it for us. That's no different than our attitudes toward any other resource, from food to sex. However, when a resource is easily available, we do often want to give it away. Of course there is still an exchange there: admiration, status, gratitude, and the possibility of guilt debt. Every couple who has discussed whether or not they "owe" dinner or a party to other friends understands that. "Gifting societies" give away food etc. for status, to ease tensions and avoid conflict, and so on. If you read about gifting societies, they are only possible when food etc. is cheap and easy.

Information used to be much harder to obtain than it is today, both in terms of direct access and in the myriad ways it is presented (the cost of finding it at all and the cost of understanding it once you find it). The invention of written language was an important step in making information more easily available, and so was the printing press, but it is computers and the Internet that have really done the most.

One very specific type of information is computer programs. Speed and cheap storage have made programming easier and therefore less expensive. Programs that once could only be written in assembly language now run quite reasonably in Perl. The Internet makes it easy to both find and share these programs, so both advances in hardware and the open nature of the Internet contribute to making programming cost less.

There's also the matter that once you start sharing programs, the cost of additional programs can become less because of what has already been done. I think we're seeing that with Linux rather plainly right now, but I suspect we're only at the beginning. People build upon what others have done, and provide better and better applications.

My belief is that this trend will intensify and will drive all but the very best commercial applications out of the marketplace. It won't be that you cannot compete with Open Source, but that it will take tremendous resources to do so. We see that now: the "easy" apps have already pretty much killed off their commercial counterparts (note how much more bundling Microsoft has had to do).

More difficult endeavors have hung in there, but can only do so if they stay way ahead: while the current Open Source competitors for QuickBooks etc. are too weak to really compete, they are already far better than what the commercial versions were originally. It may take many years for the "free" versions to get good enough to be competitive, but I don't see how that cannot happen: it seems inevitable. At a higher level, it might be decades before you'd see an Open Source competitor to SAP, or it might just never happen at all; some projects might need too many resources to be done in the Open Source arena. But then again, we surely once thought that only governments could build space-going vehicles; yet today (because of cheaper technology) we see private enterprise starting to be interested in that. So, given time, perhaps everything will fall to the Open Source model.

Further reading:

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of copyright
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of copyright part 2
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of copyright part 3
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of copyright part 4

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"At a higher level, it might be decades before you'd see an Open Source competitor to SAP, or it might just never happen at all; some projects might need too many resources to be done in the Open Source arena."

An Open Source replacement for the hideously expensive (and clunky, in my opinion) SAP may be closer than one might suspect. Consider the fact that the concepts that were used to develop SAP are hardly anything new. In the 1970's, ERP-like applications were developed for the then-new minicomputers. For example, a package called Manbase, which had much of the functionality of SAP, was developed for use on MAI Basic Four minis -- this was some 20 years ago. About the only thing Manbase didn't do was look-ahead production scheduling, which, given the performance of the hardware at the time, probably would have been more a hindrance than a help.

Going further back, literature published in the 1950's and 1960's detailed how computers could be used to handle complex manufacturing schedules and their associated (and equally complicated) inventory management issues (Wight's writings on the subject of MRP are standouts in this area). The required knowledge for building an ERP package has existed for nearly 50 years and software of one form or another has been around for at least 30 years.

I believe the development environment needed to build an Open Source version of SAP already exists. I don't see the development of Open Source ERP as being any more difficult than the development of Linux itself. Both are complicated pieces of software with readily-quantified requirements. The only real difference I see is that the need for Linux was nearly universal in the computing community. Right now the need for an Open Source SAP is less so. But it will change, and soon, methinks.


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