Modern society and our industry both depend on change. The toughest problem for any administration is managing change. Do we promote it, control it, overlook it, or manipulate it? A force that fosters growth or one that fosters devastation?
The solution is subjective, as it is with many problems. Consider the debate about jobs and new technology. Hundreds or possibly thousands of individuals may lose their jobs due to a new, less expensive method of working. This is a calamity in the eyes of the laid-off workers. However, the greater benefits frequently make it justifiable to society as a whole.
The Ice Industry
This is illustrated by one historical instance. There was a significant global commerce in ice from 1830 to the late 1880s. When the domestic refrigerator was finally perfected, the trade in frozen water virtually disappeared overnight.
Today, no one would contest the fact that freezing water in your kitchen is infinitely more important than shipping ice cubes around the world. Whereas tens of thousands of jobs were lost in one area of the economy, tens of millions of employment were generated in businesses enabled by affordable refrigeration, not the least in the same coastal villages in New England where affordable ice gave rise to a fishing industry.
Ice is a crucial component of the food processing chain, and the development of affordable refrigeration made it possible for there to be a worldwide food industry today. It was a unique and innovative concept in 1833 to send a shipment of cheeses, meats, and apples from New England to Calcutta in India (and to bury them under a little mountain of ice). The food trade today has no geographic boundaries.
No Physical Boundaries
Likewise, information technology is a crucial component of today’s commercial sector. The IT systems of recent decades resemble natural ice in many ways: they were extracted with unusual cutting tools by a tiny group of hardy explorers, transported with great care to faraway locations, and mostly served to the wealthiest users. Similar to ice, information technology has no upfront costs, no high-cost inputs, and no built-in production constraints. Information technology is merely the solid form of another plentiful substance, namely the human intellect, just as ice is the solid form of one abundant substance.
Ice production had no upper limit after industrial-scale refrigeration methods were perfected, and it was possible to do it for practically no money. Similar to this, once an IT process has been improved, it can be practically reproduced for free and used indefinitely.
The narrative might conclude here in a perfect world. Ever-cheaper IT is revolutionising industries worldwide and generating millions of jobs in sectors where large-scale IT is currently prohibitively expensive.
Some people dislike change. The late 1880s Ice Barons made valiant attempts to halt the advancement of refrigeration. They anticipated the change and knew it would devastate their empires, which they had built up over a period of 50 years and which had provided a small number of wealthy families with enormous profits.
Although there was a heated argument at the time, most people now will concur that society would have suffered immensely if the Ice Barons had prevailed and cheap ice had been outlawed. It is debatable if the Ice Barons could have prevailed; most likely, the nascent refrigeration sector would have relocated, leaving them in the dust.
Therefore, who are the Ice Barons of today, and how are they attempting to prevent the developments that will force them out of business?
The only definitive response will come from history, but from where I’m standing, it seems obvious enough.
We have a number of large software companies, lead by Microsoft, in the Ice Baron corner.
There have been numerous fronts of conflict. The conflict between “SCO vs. The World” is one front. On a different front, Microsoft, a colossus among predators, is covertly collaborating with SCO and incorporating digital rights management (DRM) security into their Office suite with the goal of making it not only challenging but also illegal to create interoperable office products like OpenOffice, which we use at iMatix.
Finally, and perhaps most sinisterly and ironically, there is the conflict over European software patents. Under the guise of defending R&D, lobbyists for the Ice Barons (represented by the BSA) have come close to persuading the EU to pass legislation that would permit software patents in line with American practise.
The battle hasn’t been decided upon yet after an original decision was delayed due to a fervent and well-organized uprising.
The campaign to enable software patents is mostly supported on the grounds that one of the EU’s objectives is to harmonise company law with US law. Harmonisation is not worth any cost, though, and before assuming that it is worthwhile to copy US patent law, it is important to understand why it is so wrong.
Simply put, software patents provide the Ice Barons with a potent legal instrument for suffocating the smaller, innovative software developers who are redefining our sector.
Many jobs in big businesses will be protected if software patents are adopted and applied for in Europe as planned. Independent small-scale software developers like iMatix will be unable to innovate. We will either cease to exist, shift our focus to less inventive duties like consulting and support, or relocate to new locations where software innovation is still feasible. employment will be protected by software patents, but for every job that is so protected, ten to one hundred new prospective employment will be lost—not only in the IT sector, but in every other industry that depends on IT now and in the future. industries that, in 1833, would have been unthinkable, just as they are today.
The Ice Barons of the IT sector will eventually melt and disappear under the uncontrollable forces of change, but in the interim, we find ourselves on the front lines of a conflict that we did not initiate but will fight nonetheless.
Publication and Saving
Since iMatix Corporation initially made the decision to release its technology as free software in 1991, we have anticipated this fight. Our best line of defence against extortionate patents is open source software since it makes our inventions accessible to all.
It naturally raises the question of how a tiny independent software developer may remain profitable while disseminating its top secrets as open source.
I’ll respond to this question at a later time. We’re focusing on the conflict over software patents in Europe for the time being.