How “Open” Do You Have To Be To Be Open Source?

Since OSCON, most of my time has been focused on editing a book, which is about to be finished. As I’m getting my commutes back, I have been reading up on what I’ve missed on Planet MySQL (which I affectionately call “The ‘planet.”

Y’all are prolific!

Jeremy’s On Open Source Citizenship got me thinking about the whole movement. I think there’s still a place for proprietary software in the world, as much as folks tout that “open source is ALWAYS better, because more people see it, therefore more people can help change it.”

Whenever anyone suggests a monolithic solution, I cringe. This all ties into the patent issues that are strongly debated these days. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about everything.

Jeremy’s article talked about how Yahoo! (as an example) couldn’t just open up all the source, because

there’d be places in the code where magic voodoo functions are called but we couldn’t really talk about what they do or how they might work. That’s called our secret sauce or “business logic” if you prefer.

So, does Yahoo! patent these functions? Should they? Why can’t the secret sauce/business logic be open? Why should parts be open and other parts closed?

I know, you’re thinking “Otherwise, how would Yahoo! make money?” Or Google, for that matter, whose search algorithms are a very huge secret. The Google NDA probably specifies that employees cannott even disclose whether or not Google even has search algorithms.

When I think open source, I tend to think everything, including the business logic, is exposed. There are some companies which would lose their business if their secrets got out. However, we know what the secret sauce is made of and yet, McDonald’s business has not suffered.

Restaurants publish cookbooks, yet they do not go out of business. Why is that?

It is because what they sell is not just the food. As Google and Yahoo do not sell their searches. Sure, the food (and searches) are what made them famous. But what keeps people flocking is that, even though they could do the same thing themselves, they need the services and resources provided. I cannot cook a hamburger on a bun with sliced pickles and onions and thousand island dressing in 5 minutes for under $3.

It would cost less per burger to make it at home, but if I just want one burger, I have to buy a package of 8 hamburger buns, ground beef by the pound, an entire jar of thousand island dressing, a whole onion, and a jar of pickles. What I’m really paying for is the person behind the counter to assemble it for me.

I use Google and Yahoo! not merely because they have good products — that is one reason, but a very small one. I use them because they give me services and resources I cannot do myself, either due to lack of expertise or just plain lack of time. Flickr works not because there is a secret to programming an image gallery on the web — it is because they offer free space and a method to upload that many people just plain do not have. Even if a geeky person like myself has photo software on her server, Flickr also provides an easy way to share albums, contact people, etc. that individual

Look at livejournal! They are a perfect example — you can download the code and install it on your own server. But most of the features require the same centralized database, so unless you want control over a *very* closed community (which can exist on anyway, just not having the database under your control), you would probably want to just create an account on, because then your “friends list” can include anyone on

I use gmail as my main e-mail client; I also have a Yahoo! Mail account. I’m a geek, and I’ve helped run mail for 12,000 users at a university; I have the knowledge and expertise to run my own mail server. So why would I use these services?

Because they do everything. They run on a highly available architecture, do backups for disaster recovery, etc. If I wanted to ensure that I gave myself the quality mail service that Google and Yahoo! can deliver, it would cost lots of money and even more of my time, for just myself.

Why should I duplicate effort in this case? If I had to be completely sustainable — including growing my own food and making my own clothes — I would not even be able to spend any time on a computer, much less be a DBA, whatever. Growing food and making clothes are “open sourced” — it’s not like one couldn’t find the information on how to do this.

So the real question is, how open does a product have to be in order to be called “open source”? Google and Yahoo! are not rich because they have secrets. They are rich because they started with secrets, but I believe they could safely let their secrets out with very little loss of revenue. There’s always the possibility that some billionaire with a mean streak will invest the resources in copying what Google or Yahoo! do if the secrets were let out. But folks are drawn to innovation, not blatant copies.

I am reading “Hackers and Painters” by Paul Graham, where he mentioned that his trade secret with Viaweb was that they were using LISP. But he also notes that his partner did not think that needed to be a secret, because even if competitors knew, they’d have to change their infrastructure and have developers with a different skillset, and that would take way too much time.

There are certainly companies I have worked for, where giving away the source/algorithms/business logic/trade secrets would mean the end of their business, because they ran on modest hardware in a colo, and with their code anyone could run their business for about $1,000. In those cases, I’d say sure, close the source and hide the secrets….but when those companies grow bigger and have more established resources, as Google and Yahoo! have both done, they can open the source, show their secrets, with very little consequence.

Of course, that leads to “how do you determine when a product is ‘big enough’ to warrant giving away the secrets?”

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