Brad DeLong has hypotheses about the roots of Free Software

“You can read the whole thing here”:

In response to “another article”:, wherein someone notes–mostly without suprise–that Linux is becoming a real contender for desktop use, Brad puts forth the following:

bq. There are two theories about open-source. The first is that while it has always been possible for a charismatic leader to call forth immense team effort and accomplish great things by force of inspiration and example alone, such enterprises are never stable. In the long run you need either the stick of potential punishment–call it the authority of the state–or the carrot of material reward–the market–in order to maintain a large social division of labor and preserve a project across any substantial length of time. Call this process the routinization of charisma.

On this theory, those parts of open-source that will survive are those that get successfully routinized: substantial companies with big revenue flows have to say to people, “We’ve hired you to work on open-source, specifically Linux.” Why would a company do this? Well, why was Microsoft so eager to make sure that the hardware specification for the IMB PC remained open? Anyone with a substantial market position in a neighboring segment can profit enormously from the expansion of the market that free-as-in-beer product provides. This is what IBM is doing now by supporting Linux: trying to remove or at least reduce the Windows tax on computers, and so grow the market in the business-services segment that IBM is close to dominating.

Think of it this way: Microsoft is like the late Roman Empire, IBM is like the Huns, and the Linux programmers are like the Goths. IBM’s support of Linux is the analogue of the Huns driving the Goths before them to soften up the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century.

The second theory is that it has been difficulties in communication and organization that have prevented the running of persistent, large-scale divisions of labor off of other human motives than fear and greed, but that now–thanks to the IT revolution–costs of communication and organization have dropped far enough that simple enthusiasm, curiosity, or the desire to demonstrate technical skill can attract enough part-time workers who can be coordinated enough to make meaningful contributions to an ongoing project.

It will be interesting to see what the answer is.

It is an interesting question. Despite having been on the inside of this for a long time, I have no idea what the answer is.

Published by

Michael Alan Dorman

Yogi, brigand, programmer, thief, musician, Republican, cook. I leave it to you figure out which ones are accurate.