A kinder response to a response to "What is open source anyway?"

A week ago at almost this same time in the morning, I was crafting my rebuttal to Stuart Yeates's blog entry titled "What is open source anyway?". A few days later, Jenny was catching up on her blog reading (which I think only includes my blog) and said to me, "Wow, you were really harsh on Stuart." Her reaction surprised me so I went back and reread my rebuttal. I decided Jenny was right.

Stuart, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been that harsh.

I can come up with all kinds of excuses but deep down I believe that the harsh edge in my response came out because I felt like I had to defend the WiX toolset’s status as a real and continuing Open Source project. That, of course, gets pretty close to personal. So, while I stand by everything I said, I do wish I would have used kinder words in many places.

Anyway as conversations go in the blogosphere (does anybody still use that term?) Stuart posted a response to my response. In it he first clarifies that the “Utopian view of open source” was just a straw man argument. I totally missed that in the original blog entry. Yet, despite my colored response Stuart did an excellent job of extracting the salient points of my argument and posted a few points of his own. I still disagree with a few of his points that I’ll just touch on here:

  1. “That the non-applicative and emotionally loaded Utopian definition of open source with which I opened the post is completely unsuitable.” We’re all in agreement here. The only thing I found weird is that Stuart labeled the company I work for as “Rob’s Microsoft”. I’ve never looked at it that way and it just sounds funny to me.

  2. ”That I was unjust in singling out WIX as an example of open source which fit the Utopian definition of open source very poorly and when I did single out WIX my characterization was unfair.” Again, I mostly agree with Stuart’s position here. Based on my reading and rereading of his original post plus the comments, I’m a little surprised that he now says he was trying to “disabuse readers of” the notion that Microsoft is in opposition to open source. But I do agree with the sentiment. Additionally, while Stuart is basically on target about my employment agreement, I don’t agree that makes all my work “on company time”. The volunteers that work on WiX are certainly not directly rewarded or recognized for their efforts on the WiX toolset. You can argue the semantics and say it is all “company time” but in reality it doesn’t work out that way.

  3. ”That it was unfair in saying that WIX does not support open standards because there are no open-standards in the software packaging world.” Stuart’s points on standard installation mechanisms are interesting. Unfortunately, the information he linked to reinforces my already negative perception of standards.

In particular, the few standards that I’ve interacted with seem to be a “lowest common denominator” functionality. In fact the Wikipedia link actually states, “While the shar format has the advantage of being pure text, it poses a risk due to being executable” and “‘unshar’ programs have been written for other operating systems but are not always reliable; .shar files are shell scripts and can theoretically do anything that a shell script can do (including using incompatible features of enhanced or workalike shells), limiting their utility outside the Unix world.” Stuart does admits the standard POSIX solutions don’t provide a polished look-and-feel. But, personally, I’m less concerned about the polish and more about the lack of reliability built into this standard.

Also, the reference to the Linux Standards Base seems to support my statement that “the WiX toolset builds the closest thing Windows has to a standard installation package”. The RPM format seems to have been adopted as the “closest thing Linux has to a standard installation package”. Since Linux has many different distributions, you probably need to lay out a standard to encourage interoperability. There are only (let’s say) three distributions of Windows (Win 3, Win9x, WinNT) and the Windows Installer fully the most recent two (seriously, Win 3 has been dead a long time, did anyone really expect support). IMHO, that makes it a pretty decent standard. Greater standardization isn’t particularly interesting until a group of people get together to drive interoperability across several operating systems.

But, really, standards bore me and I think that in the end Stuart and I agree that standards don’t really have anything to do with Open Source. What defines Open Source? Everyone seems to agree; call the OSI.