A couple of months ago my phone started ringing a few times a day. I didn’t answer it, of course, because I never answer the phone (that’s just good policy: phones are for browsing the internet, not for talking). The ringing went on for a couple of days and on the third day the phone rang and I heard a voice coming out of it even though I never pressed the talk button, which was just freaky. I asked whom it is and how they could talk on my phone without me answering.
He said he was Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, and that he has ways to get around a lot of technical barriers. I thought he was kidding about who he was until he started talking about the book I’ve been working on—he spoke about it in great detail so he’d obviously read the whole thing. What’s weird about that is I’ve been working on the book in private, in a personal Google Docs account, and nobody even knows I’m writing it. I asked how he’s able to read my private documents and he says he has ways to get around a lot of technical barriers, but that Google Docs is so easy to hack that he can hardly call it a “barrier”.
The book I’ve been writing in secret (or so I thought) is a critical history of the open source software movement, and is to be called “Open Source, Schmopen Schmource: The Triumph of Quantity Over Quality”. Mr. Gates was particularly interested Chapter 11, called “The Business Cases for Open Source: Turning Your Failure into Your Enemy’s Disaster”. Chapter 11 describes the two situations in which it makes business sense to concentrate on creating open source.
The first situation in which it makes business sense to open source your work is when you create something for free that is a crucial money maker for someone you don’t like. You have no hope, not even a desire, to be in their core business, you just want to deprive someone you don’t like of their oxygen. Google sums up this business case in their famous manifesto “The Meaning of Open” which says, basically: “if someone else is ahead in a market we don’t care about, then open source reams of stuff and give it away, but if it’s the one market where we actually dominate and make money then create some amazingly-transparent double-talk reason to keep it proprietary”.
Mr. Gates summed up the second situation in which open source makes business sense like this: “Chapter 11 is saying that when you’ve sunk all your money into a campaign, but see that there’s no possible hope of winning, the right strategy is not to admit defeat and withdraw but to instead claim victory and open source it. At West Point we used to call this ‘salting the earth,’ a whiner’s strategy, but ‘open source’ makes the same approach sound victorious. I think your book called it the ‘Eclipse’ model. I like the sound of that: Operation Eclipse.”
“I see where you’re going with this,” I said. “You’re not going to withdraw from Afghanistan, but you’re not going to continue the fight, either. You’re going to Open Source the Long War on Terrorism.”
“Exactly!” He said. “And invite the many eyes of Pakistan and Iran to join our Open Source community, to welcome them to the bazaar we have created, while we quietly ignore it and bring our troops home. The open source long war on terror will become their problem, not ours. I sincerely hope I can sell this to the O-Man while I’ve got time.”
I just read that Robert Gates has retired, but I see no mention in the news of any new open source policy at the department of defense. I guess ‘the O-Man’ didn’t like Mr. Gates plan. I wonder why not? Is using open source as a weapon too underhanded to become U.S. policy?