Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Giant at the Gate

No this is not about the giant installed at Tokyo-bay. Rather it is about the the friendly neighborhood giant, entering the hallowed gardens, where the Gnu roams and FOSS grows...
Err... Sorry for the rather long and cheesy intro (sometimes I feel like those Aaj Tak reporters). I am talking about giants like Google entering the open source domains and what it means for open source.
First a disclaimer. I am not an expert in SW industry, not an activist fighting for open source, neither one of those extremely talented volunteers by whose code the juggernaut runs... My perspective is purely from an interested user point of view. You know, neither novice ("will it explode if I press enter?"), nor geek ("let's hack the kernel"), somewhere in-between ("registry edit to re-enable pen-drive in office computer") kinda user.

Let's talk about the open source software first. For a long time the open source community has raged a war against the big money corporations (read Microsoft), criticizing their monopolistic and unethical (read greedy and evil) practices. They have argued how software should be free (free as in free speech, not free beer).

Along the way, they have managed to create some really great products. Projects like Linux and Firefox are two most well known examples out of numerous ones. It is now possible to do almost anything (personal use or business use) using only free/open-source SW.

They have changed the mindset of lots and lots people. Being open source has become cool, something like going green. Heck, even MS has announced release of an online version of Office 2010 for free. Free! From Microsoft!! The community may not have been able to change the world as much as they wanted, but they have a made a big and tangible difference. And we are the beneficiaries of that change.

It would be wrong to assume these people as like-minded members some club of geeks coding for the progress of mankind. They have their differences. Disagreements and sometimes heated arguments are common. The topics can be anything: naming (Linux vs GNU/Linux), proposed feature (remove the menu bar in Firefox or not), implementations (move xyz from security framework and put it in memory management), exact licensing policy (GPL vs Creative Commons), and above everything the actual philosophy of the project (powerful and flexible vs lean and simple). You might have seen and/or experienced the problems in projects tightly managed by PMs and leads etc. Imagine the chaos in a project run by hundreds of volunteers across the globe with a handful of administrators. But amazingly still targets are achieved, products are released, bugs are fixed.

One of the major philosophy here is "where's the patch?". Which means if you think something is not to your liking then change it. Do it yourself and show how it should be done. But along with the obvious benefits, it causes indirect problems. Fragmentation. Nobody knows exactly how many flavors of UNIX (or Unix?) are available right now... BSD, HP-UX, AIX, Solaris and of course Linux with its children.

Well, Linux was a boon actually. Despite of its various distributions and packages, it slowly emerged as the flag-bearer of UNIX. Red Hat became the dominant player in the server side. For desktop we had to wait a bit longer. And then came Ubuntu, which is taking over the Linux-PC market. Maybe, just maybe, the time has come, when at least the home desktop market will embrace Linux, slowly but steadily.

Things are almost same in the browser market. Netscape may have been killed by IE. But its offspring Firefox started growing. Now Firefox commands some 20-25% market share, which was once 100% IE.

So good so far good.

The garden is blossoming. People are taking notice of it. More gardeners and also more visitors.

And then Google happened. And kept happening. Now we have a new giant in the field other than MS. But a different one. This once is friendly. The smiling kind. Kids like it. It even watered some of the trees (see Mozilla-Google partnership).
But enough of supporting and cheering. "Let's play" it said. So within a very short time we have the Chrome browser and Chrome OS (will be released next year). Both open source. Chrome OS is Linux-based and targeted to the desktop market.

Is it good? Now that Google is a competitor of Mozilla how long will it continue the funding? Do we really need another browser and another OS, when strong alternatives are already available. Of course they can be made stronger. And Google could help in that. Open source community will do a lot well with the full strength (financial and technical) of the giant behind it.

The criticism is louder for the OS. Many feel the best thing Google could have done is embracing Ubuntu wholeheartedly. Lots of people who never heard of UNIX or bothered about Linux will readily accept a Google promoted Ubuntu (Gubuntu anyone?).

There is also one more thought. How much mainstream (mass-market) you want to become? Let's face it. An Anurag Kashyap movie will never be as big as Karan Johar, so why try. Let's keep the niche market, get the film festival awards and imdb rating, along with a small amount of profit to keep everybody happy. But becoming big has its rewards. Everybody likes fame. Like Bollywood stars 'number one' is a medal all of us craves, irrespective of how many times you say "I don't believe in the number game".

Firefox is facing these choices. The original thought was FF will be lean, fast and secure browser. You want bells and whistles and the blinking lights? Install an extension (add-on in FF lingo). But the average user does not want to search for add-on. They don't know what an add-on is and they are not bothered. For them if the feature is there... good. Otherwise it sucks. You have to maintain a balance. And it's difficult. I have been crawling the Mozilla forums and threads for sometime, and you will be amazed to see the intense debate and conflicting opinions for almost every single topic ("If you do this, I will never use Firefox again" is very common).

What about Ubuntu? I have started using it. Just one week or so. It's good. Really good. And it's legally free. But it has usability issues (some of them just because we are too used to Windows). But installing new SW sometimes caues problems where you have enter some string in repository, update packege list, type some commands in terminal or worse you will get tar file which you need to unzip and compile and then install. I am still getting used to it.

And usability is one area where Google can really contribute. There is the fear that, in the long run Google will not adhere to the open source guidelines, they will try to favor their own products and services. In one word they will become the Big Brother where your life starts and ends with Google.

Nobody knows what the future will be. But I think if Google becomes too big to be comfortable we will see some new start up to come and dislodge the incumbent. That's how it has happened and that's the way the industry (I think others industries too) work. Today you buy any laptop and it will be with Vista, which means you are paying 3.5-5K (maybe more) for the price of OS. Getting one with free DOS is rare and while you do get pirated XP/Vista easily, using them in long run will cause more and more problems (updating, getting security patches, installing SW is becoming difficult). If five years down the line we see more and more computers with easy-to-use nominally-priced/free OS, where most of the SW works in open standards, where the user can pick and choose SW from a bunch of free and premium offerings it will be great.

I know it sounds too Utopian or idealistic. But definitely the Web has changed our lives. And it will continue to do so. At the end it is us who are building it, who are participating and who are getting the benefit. Who would have thought about it five years back? And this can happen everywhere.

I will wait and see if things get better. And till that time i have Firefox and Ubuntu. :) Anyway, I think this post is already too long. Thanks a lot if you have come so far reading this junk. Comments are welcome. I am sure you have something to say about browsers or OS or Google or anything you feel like. Just type it here.


  1. Good post,some are too idealistic or Utopian concept but still I feel open source could a great solution to put a bar on the pirated software market. Once I saw a CD of office 2007 was selling with amazing price tag of rupees 50/- just outside of the Thane railway station.If Bill Gate was there,he might have fainted on the spot. And we who are mostly happy with the trial version of SW's might get a chance to satisfy ourself with its full fledged usage.

  2. hmmm...I have been thinking about the whole MS vs Google and Copyrighted vs Open Source war for sometime...just from an end user's stand point and nothing more. Very recently I happened to work with people (non Engineers...a LOT of them) who had not heard of the words "bits" and "bytes". Am absolutely not raising my collar for knowing these just made me realise...MS/Google, Copyrighted/Open hardly matters to them!!! and the important point is...there are more such people than people who are head butting in these debates. I like Google...I like their sense of humour...i use a whole array of their products!!! But at the same time...I have come to appreciate MS. I use MS products...all day...all year...They NEVER claimed to be a charity shop...have they? They came to do business...and that's exactly what they are doing. Have they succeeded in what they set out to do...hell yeah!!! Have they come up with some cool products (though at a premium)...oh yes!!! I have a feeling that...Google will flourish...without a doubt...but MS will stay...for a long long time...despite the chest beating of all the open source lovers...despite the emergence of Google...just because...there is place for both and more !!!

  3. @arun: Yes... exactly my point. My post is not about MS vs Google but Google for/against the open source. For the record, I have tremendous amount of respect for MS, for the same reason as you have, we use their products all day, products which have passed the test of time. so much of vitriol against MS actually proves the fact they are the No. 1!! and I don't think, Google is some kind of charity shop or anything like that. they are doing a business, just like MS, they are here to make money and they are making money as we know. they have been successful to find their niche, to find alternate ways of generating revenue and i think they have been slightly better in PR than others (maybe except Apple). so yes, i agree with you that MS will stay, no doubt about it, and at the same time the market will be more dynamic, with lot more choices. which is ultimately good for all of us... :D

  4. @chandan: Utopian or not, i think the move to open source SW or similar sorts, in short alternatives to the usual handful of options has started (Linux already dominates the server business). How the things will take shape we do not know, but guaranteed it will be different and exciting... For us its 'more the merrier'... options, not price...!!

  5. HEY!!! you said I can write anything I felt!!! :D

  6. @arun: of course... you are welcome to to do it again. write absolutely anything you feel like... and yes, as the a responsible host i will replay/acknowledge your feelings... :D