Note to the impatient: this is a long post and it only gets to free software ecosystem dynamics towards the end. The short version is that we need to empower software companies to participate in the GNU/Linux ecosystem, and not fear them. Rather than undermining their power, we need to balance it through competition.

Church schools in apartheid South Africa needed to find creative ways to teach pupils about the wrongs of that system. They couldn’t actively foment revolt, but they could teach alternative approaches to governance. That’s how, as a kid in South Africa, I spent a lot of time studying the foundations of the United States, a system of governance defined by underdogs who wanted to defend not just against the abuses of the current power, but abuses of power in general.

My favourite insight in that regard comes from James Madison in the Federalist Papers, where he describes the need to understand and harness human nature as a force: to pit ambition against ambition, as it is often described. The relevant text is worth a read if you don’t have time for the whole letter:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

When we debate our goals, principles and practices in the FLOSS community, we devote a great deal of energy to “how things should be”, and to the fact that “men are not angels”. I think the approach of James Madison is highly relevant to those discussions.

The conservation of power

Just as energy, momentum, charge and other physical properties of a system are conserved, so in a sense is power. If your goal is to reduce the power of one agency in government, the most effective strategy is to strengthen the position of another. We know that absolute monarchies are bad: they represent unbalanced power.

Within a system, power will tend to consolidate. We have antitrust agencies specifically to monitor the consolidation of economic power and to do something about it. We setup independent branches of government to ensure that some kinds of power simply cannot be consolidated.

Undermining power in one section of an ecosystem inevitably strengthens the others.

Since we humans tend to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and since power takes a little while to get properly abused, you can often see societies oscillate in the allocation of power. When things seem a little out of control, we give more power to the police and other securocrats. Then, when they become a little thuggish, we squeeze their power through regulation and oversight, and civil liberties gain in power, until the pendulum swings again.

The necessity of concentrated power

Any power can be abused. I had a very wise headmaster at that same school who used to say that the only power worth having was power that was worth abusing. This was not a call to the abuse of power, you understand, merely a reflection on the fact that power comes with the real responsibility of restraint.

So, if power can be abused, why do we tolerate it at all? Why not dissolve authority down to the individual? Because the absence of power leads to chaos, which ironically is an easy place to establish despotic authority. Power isn’t seized – it’s given. We give people power over us. And in a state of chaos, all it takes is a few people to gain some power and they have a big advantage over everyone else. That’s why early leaders in new ecosystems tend to become unbeatable very quickly.

Also, power clears the path for action. In a world with no power, little gets done at all. We are better off with large companies that have the power to organise themselves around a goal than trying to achieve the same goal with a collection of individuals; try making a Boeing from an equivalent group of artisans, and you’ll see what I mean. Artisans form guilds and companies to increase their reach and impact. Individual volunteers join professional institutions to get more effective: consider the impact of handing out food yourself, versus helping sustain a network of soup kitchens, even in the purely non-profit world. Having some clout on your side is nothing to sniff at, even if you have purely philanthropic goals.

Power and innovation

If you have all the power already, there’s no spur to innovate. So kingdoms stagnate, eventually.

But power makes space for good things, too. It’s the powerful (and rich) who fund the arts in most societies. Innovation needs breathing space; companies with economic power can incubate new ideas to the point where they become productive.

Too much competition can thus limit innovation: look how difficult it has been for the Windows-based PC manufacturers, who live in a brutally competitive world and have little margin, to innovate. They are trapped between a highly efficient parts supply ecosystem, which feeds them all the same stuff at the same price, and a consumer market that requires them all to provide PC’s which run the same stuff the same way. As a result, they have little power, little margin, little innovation.

The trick is not to fear power itself, but instead, to shape, balance and channel it. You don’t want to aim for the absence of power, you want the Goldilocks effect of having “just enough”. And that was James Madison’s genius.

Verticals, competition and the balance of power

Of course, competition between rivals is the balance of power in business. We resent monopolies because they are either abusing their power, or stagnating.

In economics, we talk about “verticals” as the set of supply dependencies needed for a particular good. So, to make an aircraft, you need various things like engines and alloys, and those suppliers all feed the same pool of aircraft manufacturers.

In order to have a healthy ecosystem, you need a balance of power both between suppliers at the same level of the stack, and vertically, between the providers of parts and providers of the finished product. That’s because innovation needs both competition AND margin to stimulate and nurture it.

In the PC case, the low margins in the PC sector helped reinforce the Windows monopoly. Not only was there no competition for Microsoft, there was no ability for a supplier further down the chain to innovate around them. The only player in that ecosystem that had the margin to innovate was Microsoft, and since they faced no competition, there was little stimulus to embrace their own R&D, no matter how much they spent on it.

Power in the FLOSS ecosystem: upstreams and distributions

So, where do we stand in the free software and open source ecosystem?

The lines between upstreams and distributions aren’t perfectly clear, of course. Simplistic versions of that picture are often used to prove points, but in fact, all the distributions are also in some sense upstreams, and even derivative distributions end up being leaders of those they derive from in some pieces or markets. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth looking at the balance of power between upstream projects and distributions, as it is today and as it could be.

Also, I think it’s worth looking at related parties, companies and institutions which work a lot with FLOSS but have orthogonal interests.

If one uses margin, or profit, as an indicator of power, it’s clear that the distributions today are in a far stronger position than most individual projects or upstreams. The vast majority of software-related revenue in the FLOSS ecosystem goes to distributions.

Within that segment, Red Hat claims 80% market share of paid Linux, a number that is probably accurate. Novell, the de facto #2, is in the midst of some transition, but indicators are that it continues to weaken. Oracle’s entry into the RHEL market has had at best marginal impact on RHEL economics (the substantial price rises in RHEL 6 are a fairly clear signal of the degree to which Red Hat believes it faces real competition). The existence of “unpaid RHEL” in the form of CentOS, as well as OEL, essentially strengthens the position of RHEL itself. Ubuntu and Debian have large combined levels of adoption, but low revenue.

So clearly, there is work to do just to balance power in the distribution market. And it will take work – historically, platforms tend to monopolies, and in the absence of a definitive countervailing force that establishes strength outside the RHEL gravity well, that’s what we’ll have. But that’s not the most interesting piece. What’s more interesting is the dynamic between distributions and upstreams.

Today, most upstreams are weak. They have little institutional strength. It’s generally difficult to negotiate and do business with an upstream. In many cases, that’s by design – the teams behind a project are simply not interested, or they are explicitly non-profit, as in the case of the FSF, which makes them good leaders of specific values, but difficult to engage with commercially.

As a result, those who need to do business with open source go to distributions, even in cases where they really want to be focused on a particular component. This greatly amplifies the power of the distributions: they essentially are the commercial vehicles for ALL of open source. The weakness of individual upstreams turns into greater strength for distributions.

You can imagine that distributions like it that way, and it would be surprising to see a distribution, or company that backs a distribution, arguing for stronger upstreams. But that’s exactly the position I take: FLOSS needs stronger upstreams, and as a consequence, weaker distributions.

Stronger upstreams will result in more innovation in FLOSS than stronger distributions. Essentially, like Microsoft, a distribution receives cash for the whole platform and allocates it to specific areas of R&D. That means the number of good ideas that receive funding in our ecosystem, today, is dependent on the insights of a very few companies. Just as Microsoft invested a lot in R&D and yet seemed to fall behind, upstream innovation will be strangled if it’s totally dependent on cash flow via distributions.

It’s not just innovation that suffers because we don’t have more power, or economic leverage, in the hands of upstreams. It’s also the myriad of things beyond code itself. When you have a company behind a project, they tend to take care of a lot more than just the code: QA, documentation, testing, promotion. It’s easy, as a developer, to undervalue those things, or to see them as competing for resources with the “real work” of code. But that competition is necessary, and they make a great contribution to the dynamism of the final product.

Consider the upstream projects which have been very successful over the long term. Qt and MySQL, for example, both had companies behind them that maintained strong leverage over the product. That leverage was often unpopular, but the result was products available to all of us under a free license that continued to grow in stature, quality and capability despite the ups and downs of the broader market, and without being too dependent on the roving spotlight of “coolness”, which tends to move quickly from project to project.

There are of course successful upstream projects which do not have such companies. The best example is probably the Linux kernel itself. However, those projects fall into a rather unusual category: they are critical to some large number of companies that make money in non-software ways, and those companies are thus forced to engage with the project and contribute. In the case of the kernel, hardware companies directly and indirectly underwrite the vast majority of the boring but critical work that, in other projects, would be covered by the sponsoring institution. And despite that, there are many gaps in the kernel. You don’t have to dig very hard to find comments from key participants bemoaning the lack of testing and documentation. Nevertheless, it gets by quite well under the circumstances.

But most ecosystems will have very few projects that are at such a confluence. Most upstream projects are the work of a few people, the “coolness” spotlight shines on them briefly if at all. They need either long term generosity from core contributors, or an institution to house and care for them, if they want to go the distance. The former rarely works for more than a few years.

Projects which depend on indirect interests, such as those sponsored by hardware companies, have another problem. Their sponsoring institutions are generally not passionate about software. They don’t really need or want to produce GREAT software. And if you look at the projects which get a lot of such contributions, that becomes very obvious. Compare and contrast the quality of apps from companies which deeply care about software from those which come from hardware companies, and you see what I mean.

We FLOSS folk like to tell ourselves that the Windows hegemony was purely a result of the manipulations of its sponsor, and the FLOSS as we do it today is capable of doing much more if it only had a fair chance. I don’t think, having watched the success of iOS and Android as new ecosystems, that we can justify that position any longer. I think we have to be willing to think hard about what we are willing to change if we want to have the chance of building an ecosystem as strong, but around GNU/Linux. Since that’s my goal, I’m thinking very hard about that, and creatively. I think it’s possible, but not without challenging some sacred cows and figuring out what values we want to preserve and which we can remould.

Power is worth having in your ecosystem, despite its occasional abuse

There’s no doubt that power created will be abused. That’s true of a lot of important rights and powers. For example, we know that free speech is often abused, but we nevertheless value it highly in many societies that are also big contributors to FLOSS. You probably know the expression, “I disagree with what you are saying entirely, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Similarly, in our ecosystem, power will be abused. But it’s still worth helping institutions acquire it, even those we dislike or distrust, or those we compete with. At Canonical, we’ve directly and indirectly helped lots of institutions that you could describe that way – Oracle, Novell, Red Hat, Intel and many others. The kneejerk reaction is usually “no way”, but upon deeper thought, we figured that it is better to have an ecosystem of stronger players, considering the scale of the battle with the non-FLOSS world.

I often find people saying “I would help an institution if I thought I could trust it”. And I think that’s a red herring, because just as power will be abused, trust will be abused too. If you believe that this is a battle of ecosystems and platforms, you want to have as many powerful competitors in your ecosystem as possible, even though you probably cannot trust any of them in the very long term. It’s the competition between them that really creates long term stability, to come back to the thinking of James Madison. It’s pitting ambition against ambition, not finding angels, which makes that ecosystem a winner. If you care about databases, don’t try to weaken MySQL, because you need it strong when you need it. Rather figure out how to strengthen PostGRES alongside it.

How Canonical fits in

Canonical is in an interesting position with regard to all of this. As a distribution, we could stay silent on the issue, and reasonably expect to grow in power over time, on the same basis that Red Hat has. And there are many voices in Canonical that say exactly that: don’t rock the boat, essentially.

However, perhaps unlike other Linux distributions, Canonical very much wants to see end users running free software, and not just IT professionals. That raises the bar dramatically in terms of the quality of the individual pieces. It means that it’s not good enough for us to work in an ecosystem which produces prototype or rough cut products, which we then aggregate and polish at the distribution level. Unlike those who have gone before, we don’t want to be the sole guarantor of quality in our ecosystem, because that will not scale.

For that reason, looking at the longer term, it’s very important to me that we figure out how to give more power to upstreams, so that they in turn can invest in producing components or works which have the completeness and quality that end-users expect. I enjoy working with strong commercial institutions in the open source ecosystem – while they always represent some competitive tension, they also represent the opportunity to help our ecosystem scale and out-compete the proprietary world. So I’d like to find ways to strengthen the companies that have products under free software, and encourage more that have proprietary projects to make them available under free licenses, even if that’s not the only way they publish them.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a good idea where I’m going with this. But I have a few more steps before actually getting there. More soon.

Till then, I’m interested in how people think we can empower upstream projects to be stronger institutionally.

There are a couple of things that are obvious and yet don’t work. For example, lots of upstreams think they should form a non-profit institution to house their work. The track record of those is poor: they get setup, and they fail as soon as they have to file their annual paperwork, leaving folks like the SFLC to clean up the mess. Not cool. At the end of the day, such new institutions add paperwork without adding funding or other sources of energy. They don’t broaden out the project the same way a company writing documentation and selling services usually does. On the other hand, non-profits like the FSF which have critical mass are very important, though, which is why on occasion we’ve been happy to contribute to them in various ways.

Also, I’m interested in how we can reshape our attitudes to power. Today, the tenor of discussion in most FLOSS debates is simplistic: we fear power, and we attempt to squash it always, celebrating the individual. But that misses the point that we are merely strengthening the power elsewhere; in distributions, in other ecosystems. We need a richer language for describing “the Goldilocks power” balance, and how we can move beyond FUD.

So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?

I’ll summarise interesting comments and threads in the next post.