Bill Gates Claims Open Source Means Nobody Can Improve Software

from the say-what-now? dept

Wired is running an interesting article about Bill Gates’ thoughts on the pharmaceutical industry, which he’s increasingly focused on as he transitions out of Microsoft and into his foundation. He clearly understands the basic problem, though I think he has the wrong solution in brushing off the idea that “open sourcing” medicine is a huge opportunity. As for why… well, I’ll be discussing that in a future post. Instead, for this post, I wanted to focus on a rather bizarre statement out of Gates (all the way at the end of the article) in discussing why he dislikes open source software. His complaint is that open source creates a license “so that nobody can ever improve the software.” It’s hard to figure out how to respond to that statement since it’s the exact opposite of how open source software works. The exact point is that anyone can improve the software. It’s proprietary software like Microsoft’s that’s limited such that only Microsoft is allowed to improve it. It’s no secret that Gates isn’t a fan of open source software, but it still seems odd that he would make a statement that is so obviously false, both in theory and in practice. Perhaps old FUD habits die hard, but one would hope that as he enters “retirement” he’ll have a more open mind on such things.

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Comments on “Bill Gates Claims Open Source Means Nobody Can Improve Software”

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Mark Murphy (profile) says:

Re: He's right though

No, open source licenses enable anyone to improve the software, as described in the Open Source Definition:

The license must allow modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.

Free Software has a license (GPL) that enables anyone to improve the software and greatly increases the odds that such improvements will also be Free. Open source makes it possible to create improvements, but those improvements do not necessarily have to be re-released as open source.

Alexio says:

After trying Xandros for some time, I am back with WinXP. The theory is good, but the implication (all flavors of Linux) is still quite sub par to the commercial stuff.

And the reason is simple: the GLP soft might be fundamentally good and constantly improving, but you have to be a geek to appreciate it. That’s because very smart people who work on it are generally quite detached from the needs and aspirations of the rest of us (less the price tag).

Hence, someone should really steer (with all the authority or iron fist) the project in certain, down to earth, direction; situation almost inconceivable for GLP-type projects.

Dave (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I have never used Xandros, but I know Mandriva linux is quite easy to use. The package manager makes it easy to install new software, and it is more than capable of handling most peoples needs upon first boot. I don’t think it is a matter of simplicity, but more that people are used to seeing that windows logo. As far as not allowing anyone to improve the software; I am fairly certain the gpl specifically states that anyone can modify the software…..But I sometimes have problems with reading a sentence and completely misconstruing what I have seen.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

@Alexio@ any chance you might want to elaborate? This is part of the problem – you apparently “used” a relatively obscure Linux distribution (Why not Fedora? Mandiva? Ubuntu? etc..) and decided that it wasn’t for you.

Fine. But why? Why do you claim “you need to be a geek to appreciate it”? What was it that you found lacking – application support? Hardware support? Did you just not like the look and feel? Did you find yourself reverting to the command line or unable to find a particular function?

…and what about the Xandros project itself? Projects like that need feedback from ordinary users to tell them how they can improve. Did you let them know what you found lacking? Did you check the project pages where these distributions are usually more desperate for artists, writers and testers (i.e. users who will feed back their experience) than they are for coders?

Sadly, until people start supplying these details instead of just giving vague “it wasn’t as good as the $500 stuff” messages, it’ll be difficult to meet your needs. Tell people what your needs are, and they can be met.

Francis the Wonder Llama says:

Re: Re: Re:

@PaulT@ You critisize Alexio for his statement that “You need to be a geek to apprciate it.” Then go on to beg for: detailed feedback on app support, hardware support, look and feel, and then advise to check the project pages etc. Don’t you get it? This is exactly what the complaint is about having to be a geek to appreciate it is about! A computer literate but casual user does not want to have to invest so much time and effort into what you ask for. I want my software to make me more productive, meaning I want to install it and get going with it to complete my goals. And my goals are not the software itself. Leave that to the geeks. And given the old adage that “Time is money” I have to question spending several hours = several hundred $$ in giving feedback in the hopes that someday someone who is not responsible to me will deem my wishes important enough to work on and bring me what I want; OR do I just take that couple hundred $$ and go get what is good enough to allow me to get to what I need to do in the first place and be on with it? IT’s the geeks that choose the former and the people that have other things to do that choose the latter.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Leave that to the geeks.”

You see, here’s the problem. People complain that FOSS software is not good enough for them because it doesn’t meet their needs, or because the “geeks” don’t understand their needs.

So, if you don’t have the time to communicate the needs, how the hell are the “geeks” meant to meet your needs.

Let me put it another way. How does Microsoft know what its customers want? How does it meet the needs of the enterprise that it focusses on so heavily? Because people talk to them, constantly. The fact that they’re paying money for support means that they contact Microsoft for any problem. This allows Microsoft to determine the largest problems and fix/improve accordingly.

If you don’t bother feeding back the same information to the people you’re not paying, how are they supposed to fix the “problems”? If money’s the problem, every major Linux distribution has a paid-for support channel with the same guarantees as Microsoft should you wish to pay them. Why not help them help you?

“I want my software to make me more productive, meaning I want to install it and get going with it to complete my goals.”

I recently bought a laptop preinstalled with Vista. It was slow, and almost completely unusable until SP1 was released thanks to a well documented problem with copying files.

While waiting for Vista to be fixed, I installed Mandriva in a different partition. Everything worked straight away, including wireless and 3D graphics, straight out of the box. As did the applications I used out of the 10,000+ that came on the same DVD.

By your standard, Vista sucked and Linux did not. By your standard, I was ripped off by Microsoft yet Mandriva came in and did everything I needed free-of-charge.

Francis the Wonder Llama says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It’s not just time to communicate to the geeks, it’s that most casual users don’t want to have to do it. It’s simply not my (as a casual user) problem to have to take time to tell the geeks so that they can accomplish whatever is the geek’s agenda is. Be it some quasi-religious pursuit, software utopian ideal or semi-socialist, anti-corporate political issue. Or whatever else motivates the geeks.

BTW, I AM a geek and don’t mind doing it myself. Professionally I support probably 25 different versions of OSes. At home I play with maybe 10 more. So I do it quite frequently. But I’m speaking to what my non-geek friends, family and customers say and what seems obvious to me.

What you seem to be missing is that for geeks, the software itself is the focus. For most people, what the software lets them accomplish is the focus. They don’t give a rats ass about OSS or those other things. And the VAST majority of people have never given feedback to MS. Instead, they’ve let other people (mainly their IT support geeks) do it for them. In fact, that has been a portion of my various jobs at times.

The fact is that MS and other “closed SW suppliers” are already there. My family or friends can just go down to Fry’s or wherever to and pick something up. Throw the disk in, and get going. What you are BEGGING them to do is help you in YOUR pursuit to get there. And that is just not their fucking problem.

But the geeks persist to pontificate from on high and look down their noses upon the unwashed and pitifully ignorant masses with statements like “Then maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to use a computer because zero knowledge of how ANY operating system works is the problem, not the operating system itself.” from erichweiss

Such blantant arrogance is laughable. Not to mention that the reponse was purposefully done out of context. And then to top it off, it displays a typical discrete geek logic. Jumping to the conclusion that if someone doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on the OS itself then they must have zero knowledge. Typical binary thinking Full knowledge and devotion (1) versus zero knowledge (0). Missing the point that the household computer has become to the users, a commodity just like the microwave, TV, and dishwasher. Just how much time and effort have any of us put into those things’ improvements?

Was the home computer and its OSes ready for that when it came about? No. Is it even really ready now? Arguably still no. But that is the problem of the geeks to make it so. It is not the problem of the comsumers who have every right to expect what they can buy in a store to just work for them (with a “good enough” probability), not for them to work for the software.

Sorry about the Vista experience. It’s a pig especially pre-SP1. But liek anything a single sample doesn’t make a rule. And I doubt I could calcualte the total time I’ve spent with getting various distros of Linux or FreeBSD etc to work properly.

But maybe the best question at that topic is…

Just how much time and effort did you put into giving MS constructive feedback about your Vista problems?

mike allen says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

FEEDBA hang on people pay a ton of money to M$ get it home or office and it dont work drops of the net when using wirless and won copy anything because of DRM WTF should we feedback to M$ when a better less flacky system is there and free. and yes i do feedback to linux. M$ VISTA is NOT fit for purpose.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Just how much time and effort did you put into giving MS constructive feedback about your Vista problems?”

In my case, none. But only because the problem was extremely well documented by the time I obtained it. Those problems existed for nearly a year on a closed, proprietary product, and was clearly the cause of major headaches for thousands of users – hardly a single sample. My mistake was in assuming that after nearly a year on the market, the updates available for my unaltered, pre-installed, paid-for OS would have fixed it. Not until after I’d spent a month waiting for SP1.

Anyway, you seem to be missing my points during the rest of your message:

“And the VAST majority of people have never given feedback to MS. Instead, they’ve let other people (mainly their IT support geeks) do it for them.”

…which feedback makes it back to MS in various forms. If the company’s an MS partner, there are specific channels through which ongoing problems are reported. Information makes it back to Microsoft, even if just a small proportion of people do it directly.

One example of this is Office 2007. Microsoft polled their partners as to which features their customers most wanted in 2007. hey were surprised to find that most of the features requested were already in Office, but people had problems finding them. This led to the redesigned ribbon menu system.

Compared that to the people complaining about Linux but never going further than “I don’t like it”. Feeding back information, even on a forum like this, would be a good start. Imaging if the people contacted for Office 2007 had just said “I dunno” when asked about features – nothing would have changed for the new versions.

“The fact is that MS and other “closed SW suppliers” are already there. My family or friends can just go down to Fry’s or wherever to and pick something up. Throw the disk in, and get going. What you are BEGGING them to do is help you in YOUR pursuit to get there. And that is just not their fucking problem.”

No, you’re completely misunderstanding my point. Yes, you can go to a major retailer and buy a copy of Windows. Frankly, I don’t care whether you can buy an overpriced retail box in a store, but that’s irrelevant to my original post. The Fry’s people don’t care about the experience you have after buying the product – just try and get any post-installation support for anything but major known issues. If you get it, you’ll be paying for it.

Too many people, including experienced users such as yourself and Alexio, seem to spend a lot of time complaining that Linux and other FOSS “isn’t ready” or “isn’t good enough” without elaborating further. My point was that until you actually start saying WHY you don’t like it, it’s never going to improve. For example, I stated above one of the major reasons I don’t like Vista – it was ridiculously slow and unstable, even on a fresh install on a new machine. I could go into other things that Linux had over and above Vista in my experience (e.g. the ability to change the display language without having to fork over $200 for an upgraded version), but the point was I made specific complaints.

For some people, the problem with Linux is that they don’t like the look and feel. Others miss certain Windows-specific applications. Others have small, niggling difficulties performing certain tasks.

If, for example, Alexio had given a few small details to Xandros, they may be able to fix the problems, especially if the latter was the case. If it was just the look and feel that Alexio didn’t like, he could have stated what he’d prefer and someone could have suggested a different distribution that was closer to his needs.

But, since he didn’t say what his needs were, nor how Xandros was failing to meet them, how will they ever be met?

“Jumping to the conclusion that if someone doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on the OS itself then they must have zero knowledge. Typical binary thinking Full knowledge and devotion (1) versus zero knowledge (0). Missing the point that the household computer has become to the users, a commodity just like the microwave, TV, and dishwasher. Just how much time and effort have any of us put into those things’ improvements?”

Totally false analogy. It’s true that most people don’t know anything about how to use the OS. Many of them don’t care. That’s fine. But, we’re NOT talking about the average user here, are we? We’re talking about experienced people, often computer professionals, who willingly spread FUD about Linux “it’s only as good as Windows 95” – yeah, maybe 5 years ago – without detailing their complaints. If I had jumped in here merely going “Vista sucks!!!”, I would have been flamed and rightly so. Instead, I detailed the exact problem the put me off using Vista as well as noting that a different OS had not such issue.

That’s all we’re asking for here. Alexio stated “After trying Xandros for some time, I am back with WinXP.”. Well, fine, that’s his choice. But the problem was that he extrapolated that into there being some kind of major problem with open source software as a whole. A more constructive and realistic comment would have been “After trying Xandros for some time, I was regularly having problem X or couldn’t get my head round concept Y so i went back to WinXP”.

See the difference?

ehrichweiss says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“A computer literate but casual user does not want to have to invest so much time and effort into what you ask for.”

Then maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to use a computer because zero knowledge of how ANY operating system works is the problem, not the operating system itself.

Think about all the people who know absolutely nothing about using the commercial operating systems and you can begin to realize this isn’t isolated to open source by any stretch of the imagination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Not sure what you’re getting at. I completed an MS in Computer Science, but OSes weren’t my concentration: I know lots of theory, but I don’t know anything practical about how Windows or Ubuntu or anything else actually does its thing. And so long as it DOES its thing, I don’t really care, either. Why should I?

ConceptJunkie (profile) says:

Re: Re:

>situation almost inconceivable for GLP-type projects.

I guess you’ve never used Firefox or Thunderbird or any of a thousand OSS packages that are as good or better than their commercial counterparts.

Your blanket statement may have been true 10 years ago, but my non-techie wife can use Ubuntu and be just as productive as with Windows.

Oh, and it’s “GPL”. People might take you more seriously if you can at least spell the acronym correctly.

N1ck0 says:

Re: It depends on what your definition of "improve" is.

Its simple, Bill doesn’t see how support and ancillary services could make money (which is interesting cause Microsoft made a lot of money of consulting/research/supporting products & services). He basically believes that the backing of any product is the value invested in intellectual property behind it.

With the GPL license you can’t just buy-out an existing work and assume all control over that intellectual property. And as Microsoft gains a large amount of its IP that way; he doesn’t can go buy new technologies with the GPL around.

So basically its the ‘if I can’t buy and control all of it, it must not have value’ thinking.

Of course this is very hypocritical because this is the same person who said that hardware would become free, and promotes the future of selling software/support as pay services over the cost of the product. So in essence he is saying the ancillary products & service offerings are worth more.

In the end the guy is just looking for investments that his investment firms can buy and dominate (like the rights to Einstein’s public image, or a drug to cure cancer) he’s not concerned with consumers, or business relationships anymore.

Mike says:

By nobody he really means that no large company has the same economic incentive to improve open source software as it does to improve its own software.

I can barely begin to enumerate the flaws in the statement.
– the capitalist model fails when externalities are involved therefore the net social benefit of the availability of the function provided by the software less the sum of individual benefits is the reason why open source exists at all. If it didn’t supply a need, it wouldnt exist.
– large companies are divorced from the users. Vista is such a beast I cant wait to fdisk and start over in ubuntu. Who says that what the companies who own the copyright on the software do is actual improvement? Those companys sure, but is it really worthwhile? Can you get a better bang for the same buck by using linux?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 In a practical sense he is right

On the contrary, if a company gets revenue from selling their IP (Intellectual property) in their source as a compiled product, they will be unable to do so if they have to expose their source code (especially to their competitors) .. which is precisely the issue Gates was addressing – it makes the product commercially unviable, unless you completely change your business model (which some companies have done)

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: In a practical sense he is right

“If you include GPL code in your closed source product .. it in effect makes it open source .. which makes GPL commercially unviable for companies that sell closed source solutions.”

No, it makes it a non-viable choice for people who want to steal other peoples’ code.

Put it this way: If I somehow obtained a competitor’s code, modified it and released the resulting program, I’d be violating copyright. I’d be liable for lawsuits, no matter how much of the code was mine to begin with – the fact I included stolen code would make the whole thing illegal.

Now, the GPL makes it so that instead of the blanket “you must not modify, alter, redistribute…” demand that comes with proprietary code, you are allowed to do these things *as long as you redistribute your changes*. If you refuse to do this, you are violating the copyright agreement as surely as if you stole proprietary code.

Why do you think you should have the right to use OSS code in your closed source product without agreeing to the licence? If you want the code, agree to the licence. if you don’t like the licence, don’t use the code. Why is that so hard?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 In a practical sense he is right

If you don’t like it, don’t use it. I wonder why more open source fanatics don’t follow that mantra instead of making uninformed OH NOES WINDOWS M$M$M$M$M$ comments every day.

Infact, how many open source fanatics have EVER released source code? Typically it’s more FREE AS IN BEER BEER BEER they care about as opposed to the source code being open.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: In a practical sense he is right

If you use GPL source code as part of your source code, you have to provide the source code only to the people who you provide the compiled program too. So unless you’re giving only compiled programs, and not source code, to your clients, you have nothing to fear from using GPL source code. Which is possible.

But if that is the case, and you’re using only a “very small” portion of GPL code, re-write it yourself; no one’s twisting your arm to use it. But if you need that code, you play by the authors’ rules: for proprietary code that means you pay up, for GPL-liscensed code that means you recipicate by sharing your work back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: In a practical sense he is right

So what you are saying is that I need to provide libGPLMOD.a),
and a tarball with the interface code and the original GPLMOD code.

My code, which #includes the header file from the interface code and makes calls to, does not have to be released and can be kept proprietary.

Is that correct?

Chris Maresca (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: In a practical sense he is right

Probably not in that exact way, no. What you could do is create a separate interface using sockets , IP connections, etc (and license that under a GPL-compatible license), that does not involve compiling any GPL pieces in your code. The FSF, which produced the GPL, is basically concerned about “co-mingling” which would be anything that is linked (static or dynamic), but accessing a program through an abstracted interface that is detached, such as unix sockets, is fine.

Note that there are a lot of other things that need to be understood before using this as a strategy, such as which version of the GPL you are dealing with, what are the business objectives behind this, and is the code you are trying to protect really that valuable that this is worth doing. Often, this involves getting advice from people who have BTDT and legal counsel who has expertise in this area.

BTW, you’re use case has pointed out another advantage of open source code, which is that the licenses often enforce modularity, which is a good thing.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 In a practical sense he is right

So compiling and linking GPL pieces into my proprietary code isn’t allowed –like these two examples:

cc gpl_mod.o proprietary_mod.o …

#include “gpl_mod_if.h”

But these would be okay.

proprietary1_exe | gpl_exe | proprietary2_exe | …

And as you say, good legal advice is recommended before trying any such thing.

Benji says:

Re: In a practical sense he is right

Funny, I develop closed source systems for my clients and I bothered to read the GPL. I use ZedGraph in my application all over the place and all my code is closed.

Hell, I never even bothered to download the source for ZedGraph. If I ever get some free time though, I’ll add a couple things that I’d like to see in there to make my life easier.

dude says:

Re: In a practical sense he is right

That’s not correct. Read the GPL. You only need to publish improvements to any GPL code. If you distribute code and it happens to use an unmodified GPL program in it then you are not required to publish the source to your code. If your zip contains a modified GPL program you are only required the release the source to that modified GPL program, not your own code. Read ‘Free Software, Free Society’ or the GPL for more info.

she says:

Re: In a practical sense he is right

That is correct.
There are other licenses available though, like BSD license, which allows you to stay completely closed sourced.

But the point is another one – Bill claims that noone can modify open source software.

That is a lie.

Bill is not a stupid man, but this is simply a lie.

I know because I have modified GPL software in many cases, and contributed back as well.

FUD Buster says:


This was an issue with the Government at one time. I think some of the GPL licenses read in a way that it could be argued that any improvements made had to be shared.

So if you make improvments that deal with something secret or that gives you a business edge you have to give it back.

Linksys built a system on Linux for low cost routers.. had to then share the code. So now anyone can see what they did.

to me that is like saying.. Here use our LCD projectors for free as long as all your confidential business stratgies even shown on it are posted to YouTube.

Has this ever been fixed in the GPL so you can keep your improvements to yourself?

Xanthir, FCD (profile) says:

Re: BUT..

Incorrect. The GPL states that you must release the source code to people you distribute the program to. If you never distribute it, you never have to share the source, and your improvements remain your own.

However, if you make an improvement to some GPLed code and then use that in your product that you sell, you *do* have to release the source code with it (along with your improvements). As noted by a previous respondent, that’s THE feature of GPL. GPL is a viral license that infects anything that touches it. The point is to eventually make virtually everything GPL, so that we return to the early state of computing where anyone could change any program they had to do what they wished.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: BUT..

You only have to share the code if you release a product using that code. If you keep the product to yourself, you keep the code to yourself.

The sharing aspect of the GPL is to protect the original coders. If the licence didn’t force you to share the code, there would be nothing to stop a company from taking the code from an open source product, modifying it and then releasing it as their own work.

The GPL says simply – if you use this code, the original coders must be compensated. The requested compensation is for the additional code to be released. Linksys should have understood this condition. I can’t use Microsoft’s code in my projects – it would be illegal and it is expressly forbidden. GPL projects say – go ahead use the code, but if you do you must abide by these conditions…

Don’t like those conditions? You have a choice – don’t use the code! But again, it’s only if you release the product yourself that these conditions apply – you can modify code internally to your heart’s content.

In the case of your example – a rather poor one I must say – the LCD projector would have the conditions firmly printed on it. You have the choice – use the projector and post the videos or *don’t use it in the first place*!

Adam says:

Re: BUT..

The way I read the GPL (and the way I think most people read it) is that you only have to distribute your source with any derived product that is distributed. For example, if I take the Linux kernel, then modify for my own internal purposes, I don’t don’t have to share my changes with anyone that doesn’t receive the modified kernel.

chris (profile) says:

Re: BUT..

to me that is like saying.. Here use our LCD projectors for free as long as all your confidential business strategies even shown on it are posted to YouTube.

Has this ever been fixed in the GPL so you can keep your improvements to yourself?

hell no it wasn’t “fixed”. it was never broken to begin with. nice attempt at FUD, but it falls short.

first of all, if you use GPL tools (the projector in your analogy) to create proprietary software you can fully keep the code to yourself so long as the proprietary product (your confidential business strategy in your analogy) contains no GPL code and doesn’t link to and doesn’t link to GPL libraries.

GPL is not just another name for open source. the GPL is one very strict open source license, but there are plenty of other open source licenses with fewer restrictions.

all GPL’d software is open source, but not all open source software is GPL’d. there are many open source licenses that are NOT compatible with the GPL, like the BSD license and the mozilla license. you can use lots of open source licensed code without giving changes back, just not GPL code.

AND, you can make all the changes you want to GPL code as long as you don’t distribute (release/sell) the modified code. if you are a for profit company and you modify something and only use it internally or only use it as a service on your website you can charge all you want and not release the changes.

using GPL code in a proprietary product would be like modifying the linux kernel for your proprietary architecture not making the modifications to the kernel available under the GPL. there is nothing in the GPL that says you can’t sell the software, you just have to make the source available too.

using GPL tools to create proprietary products that you sell is fine, using modified GPL code internally in a for profit corporation is fine, and using modified GPL code to provide a fee based service is fine, selling or otherwise distributing the modified code without giving the changes back is not fine.

that is the “viral nature” lie that MS has been spreading for a couple of years now, the myth that if your product touches GPL software it somehow automatically becomes GPL too. it’s a lie, plain and simple.

if you want to take open source code and sell a proprietary product without sharing your changes, you are perfectly free to do so, you just have to use code with a different license than the GPL, like the BSD license, apache, mozilla, etc.

secondly, linksys still makes routers with linux since there is such a huge enthusiast market. that’s the difference between the WRT54g and the WRT54GS/GL. people buy the linux versions and flash custom firmware on them. i recommend openWRT.

aweraw says:

Re: BUT..

This has to be the most misunderstood aspect of the GPL.

The GPL DOES NOT force you to distribute changes you make to the software, UNLESS you distribute it.

You can take any GPL software, modify it to your hearts desire, and never share the changes. So long as you don’t distribute said software to 3rd parties, you’re under no obligation to release you modification. Take Google for example: they’ve heavily modified the Linux kernel for their own needs, but they aren’t “forced” to release those modifications, because they aren’t distributing software.

The “must release modifications” clause of the GPL only applies if you distribute the software… and even then, it only mandates that you supply your modifications to the recipient of your software – nothing says you have to make them generally available to the public at large.



Overcast says:

Well, it’s a legit concern to a degree. After all, people do deserve to be compensated for work. But at the same time, if people wish to write software and give it our for free, that is their right as well.

You can debate quality issues after that, forever.

But I also agree – if you are going to put together software for profit and all, then you have no right to use any GPL routines, headers, or anything like that along with the software – and still charge for it.

As for the ‘not improving software’ – bah, that’s B.S. – it may not improve the ‘business model’ he would like all of us locked into.

But saying that – is saying that hobbyists like the Wright Brother did nothing to improve transportation. Or Tesla did nothing to improve electronics..

Paul says:

Talk only about what you know.

Familairize yourself with the GPL licenses and find out how what Bill Gates says is accurate, and not “the exact opposite of how open source software works”.

It is easy to turn something you don’t understand into a utopic concept to fit your desires but open source does not necessarily mean what most undereducated people think it means.

Kiba (user link) says:

Re: Talk only about what you know.

The GPL is about protecting certain economic freedom.

The freedom to run the software as one wish.
The freedom to modify and study the software.
The freedom to copy the program to share or distribute it.
The freedom to improve it and release it to the public.

These are the 4 freedom of free software and what is the GPL designed to protect.

So yes, Mike is right about anybody can improve it. You just need to legally obtain it which is easily done without much fuss.

Chris Maresca (user link) says:

Re: Talk only about what you know.

Sorry, but no.

The GPL is a great license for commercial companies, it can be used to drive a number of interesting business models and fosters all kinds of creative combinations.

Just look at SugarCRM and JasperSoft for two good examples, and read the 451 Group’s report on top open-source based business models. Or look at the recent acquisitions of MySQL, XenSource and Jboss. Open source can build huge value, just in a different way than traditional software.

I think you should really re-assess your thinking about open source and try to understand how value is built around various open source licenses, including the GPL.


ConceptJunkie (profile) says:

Re: Talk only about what you know.

_His_ company may not be capable of improving software, but in no way can it be claimed that OSS is stifled becuase of the GPL. OSS, as a whole, has improved more in the last year than Microsoft’s products have since Windows XP shipped.

Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Microsoft are still angry that they can’t just sit back and collect revenue forever without lifting a finger, and they know they can’t compete in terms of quality (if they ever could) so they are stuck propping up the sagging remains of their fading, but still powerful monopoly. Microsoft stopped being a software company a decade ago, they have been a “monopoly company” ever since. It’s the only way they can survive.

danw says:

definition of "improve"

If by “improve” B.G. means “add monetary value to” he’s right. If by “improve” he means make more user-friendly, bug-free, and capable, he’s wrong.

We’ve all used MS products. I think we know what definition of “improve” Bill prefers.

I’ve used both commercial (Microsoft and IBM) and GPL’d (GNU/Linux) operating systems from ’94 to present. It’s the classic rabbit and hare story. Be patient.

Just because it doesn’t cost money doesn’t mean it has no value.


With Free Software, the costs of development can be shared over many people. The barriers to entry are low. This is not the case with drugs because of the stakes involved. A screwup will be much more serious.

It’s really apples and oranges.

The notion that you can’t improve free software is
just an artifact of his Robber Baron mindset.

Money is not the only motivator in life. While
the notion of Open Source pharma at the individual
doesn’t make sense it could certainly work at the
level of Nations and Universities. This is how
science in general works.

Perhaps it’s time for Academia to take a bigger
role in drug research (assuming their work isn’t
already being pilfered as is).

PaulT (profile) says:

Bizarro world

…that’s where Gates tends to live when it comes to relating to open source. These comments are a prime example.

Want a great example of how open source improves things? Look no further than Internet Explorer. After IE6 was introduced, there were only bugfixes. No new features were added (though some 3rd party developers tried to). After several years of this, it was announced that Internet Explorer would no longer be available as a free, standalone product and would instead only be included with new versions of Windows.

A year or so later, a new, standalone version of IE was released with extra features. What changed their minds? Firefox. An open source browser, free for not only anyone to improve directly but also to extend with their own separate extensions that didn’t need Mozilla’s approval. Hundreds of new features appeared – some borrowed from other sources, some unique. The basic browser as represented by IE was suddenly improved many-fold. Were there still problems? Of course. But the overall product was generally more secure, more stable and with many more features

So, proprietary methods caused Microsoft to give up adding new features to IE, open source forced them to compete. That’s the real lesson for the pharmaceutical companies but they won’t get the truth from Microsoft.

N1ck0 says:

It's all IP

Basically Bill likes the fact that you can own an idea, and if you do a crappy job implementing it no one else can try to compete because you can sue them.

The problem is that having this overarching control of an idea means that you reduce the improvements and innovation in a marketplace. He hates open source because its a market where all the competition is fair. So if you screw up your business model, product, sales, marketing, or any other part of your business someone else can steal your market share.

Ryan says:

Tech Geekieness Aside...

We can discuss all day long about open source this, commercial that, but when it boils right down to it, which is more successful?

Windows is more successful because of its ease of use. It’s commercial.

PHP is more successful because of it’s ease of use.
It’s Open source.

So which is the winner? There is no clear answer because it is different with every situation.

Ease of use brings better adoption. It is easier to write a program for Windows than for MAC or Linux.

It is easy to write a script in PHP because you don’t rely on the VBScripting world roots of ASP, (which was harder to get used to in the earlier days).

If you make it easy to obtain, learn, adopt, practice, etc. you will have a winner.

Open source doesn’t lead itself to direct goals in all cases. They say, “hey there, there is this free utility and here’s how it works. Go play with it.” And people do.

People tinker from all over the globe and they all have different ideas as to what is “EASIER”. Eventually, you get a better version or a neat widget, but the focus isn’t there like with commercial.

GUI based linux OS’s run like Windows 98. Whoop di doo!

That’s because everyone has a different goal when developing this open source software.

If you devote the whole world to one specific task in open source, you would have the world’s best system in a year flat.

But that isn’t how open source works. It gives you freedom, and with freedom comes choice. And if you are told to do something versus asked to do something, a lot of times the person telling you what to do needs to pull out their checkbook to get us to do it. Because we don’t like being TOLD what to do. We like to choose.

So, in the end, you want a better product faster, PAY.

If you want a better, more well rounded product, Open Source. But you goal must be to make it…


Thanks for reading my ramble.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Tech Geekieness Aside...

I’d take issue with a few things there, Ryan:

“Windows is more successful because of its ease of use.”

That’s arguable. People have generally learned to live with Windows’ problems because it’s all they’ve known thanks to MS’s monopoly. When things happen that shouldn’t (e.g. worms/viruses, regular DLL problems), they live with them. When something comes along that should prevent that problem (e.g. Vista’s constant prompting or the need to log into a Linux machine), it’s usually preceived as annoying becuase it’s different, even though it would prevent problems.

Besides, if ease-of-use was the only criteria for success, wouldn’t Macs be the biggest sellers?

“GUI based linux OS’s run like Windows 98. Whoop di doo!”

Try a recent distribution, preferably one that uses Compiz if you want the 3d effects. Basing arguments on 5-year old distributions doesn’t help.

Other than that, I agree with your points.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Tech Geekieness Aside...

Comparing windows to PHP is comparing apples to oranges.
A better anology would be comparing windows to linux.
The fact of the matter is that windows beats linux hands down in terms of usage, install base, availability of applications. Another example would be comparing Apple OS X (Leopard) to linux.

Just look at the market share: Windows 91.79%, Mac OS X 7.31%, Linux 0.63%

Reed says:

Re: Re: Tech Geekieness Aside...

Market share is a horrible way to judge closed source and open source applications. For one people don’t buy open source programs so figuring out how many people actually use them is difficult and problematic. The second problem is how many people who do not buy their commercial software.

Market Share is also interpretive. Is it market share in the US or South America? Does it include servers?

Basically statistics like market share are 99% useless and should not be used to prove your points. If you don’t believe me how about this. Over 90% of servers not associated with major companies are ran by Linux which accounts for the majority of sites on the Internet. So Linux is actually wildly more popular since the majority of computing nowadays takes place on the internet. What does this prove? Not a whole lot.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Techdirt is right

“BTW, where can i find the opensource equivalent of Photoshop?”

Usual answer: The Gimp, using GimpShop if you prefer Photoshop’s look and feel. If you absolutely, positively have to use Photoshop itself, it apparently works fine with Wine and there are hundreds of 8 or 12-step how-tos online to tell you how to do it.

Matt says:

Where did it all start?

I believe in open source, but reading Gates’ letter got me thinking: Where did it all start? Was the initial pay-up model of MS, IBM, et al, even partially responsible for laying the framework on which we all demand free and open access to software?
Something to think about.
#44: GIMP. (There are many others, too.) It lacks some of the advanced (and proprietary) features, but since it is open source you are able to improve it. All you need is an advanced math degree, some programming chops, and lots of time…


TW Burger (profile) says:

Commercial versus Open Source Software

I develop applications and sell them to end users. I do not give code away.

However, I do share programming knowledge free of charge and expect to receive help from others that can help me solve my coding problems.

This is how better software is developed. Through better understanding of solutions by sharing information. Gates is not concerned about Linux or any other open source competing against Windows or Office. Alternatives were and are available and have no effect of Microsoft product sales. He is concerned that Microsoft will have to reveal trade secrets once open source is a generally accepted business model and the courts finally determine that Microsoft is a monopoly.

Please note: Linux is not free. It is a giveaway to entice customers into support service contracts. Red Hat makes money and has a good product.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hmmm.. lets see.. open source… why would i invest in a company that gives away its recipe for free to anyone who asks for it… I wouldn’t. Code is intellectual property, whether you choose to make money off of it or not.

Selling service and support, at least in my eyes should be icing on the cake. But the recipe for the cake is the code. Give away the receipe and you don’t make money.

A better analogy. KFC keeps is receipe for 11 herbs and spices, split between 3 different locations. Only VERY few have that total receipe. Why? Because if its free and / or open. KFC goes out of business. Period.

Kiba (user link) says:

Re: Re:

The only problem is that free software aspect make business models for open source and free software very workable.

It is more appealing to customers that they can modify stuff, use stuff in the way that they like.

Plus you can’t compete with a competitor that can afford to charge zero cents for his stuff and still make money in the long run.

There are inherent benefits with free software that make software firms much more adaptable to any economic environment.

Death or innovate is much more motivating than the fear of no return on investment anyway.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Selling service and support, at least in my eyes should be icing on the cake. But the recipe for the cake is the code. Give away the receipe and you don’t make money.

Yup. Just like Redhat, MySQL, SugarCRM, Zimbra and all those other open source firms that couldn’t make any money at all… Oh wait…

Or, if you hadn’t noticed IBM has become an open source software company too. And they’re not making any money at all. None at all. Other than the fact that they’re making a ton of money.

But why look at details? Or facts?

Chris Maresca (user link) says:

Re: Re:


MySQL – Sold for $1 billion
XenSource – Sold for $500 million
JBoss – Sold for $400 million
Zimbra – Sold for $350 million
Sourcefire – IPO for $350 million

I guess $2.6 billion in the last 18 months is pocket change for you…

And lets talk about P/E for a second. When EMC bought VMware, they paid $635 million for a company with $100 million in revenue. When Citrix bought XenSource, they paid $500 million for a company with less than $1 million in revenue. Who is building value, exactly? Seems like open source companies are building MORE value than any closed source company ever did (and I didn’t even mention Google…).

More info here if you are still not convinced:


mike allen says:

ok M$ or linux

Microdoller is simply that Linux is now better than MS why Vista anyone. it is literally crap i have it on my laptop had too i had no choice i bought a mchine with vista on or non. with my desktop id take none and build my own but im not building a laptop. so i now have to make a decition put linux on it or suffer VISTA no contest linux wins everytime. BTW this is written using Mozilla thunderbird on a box running UBUNTU. and i can do a lot more with linux than VISTA or perhaps it should change its name to p****a

mike allen says:

Re: Re: ok M$ or linux

FEEDBA hang on people pay a ton of money to M$ get it home or office and it dont work drops of the net when using wirless and won copy anything because of DRM WTF should we feedback to M$ when a better less flacky system is there and free. and yes i do feedback to linux. M$ VISTA is NOT fit for purpose.

How much has M$ paid you for that VISTA IS CRAP and the sooner M$ realise that the better and i dont need spelling lessons from a Bill Gates Cloan.

Iron Chef says:

GPL, MySql, and everything inbetween.

GPL is impractical in a business setting- there can be too many new feature additions that deviate from the core concept of the software, which can make it large and extremely difficult to manage.

Tying into an earlier TechDirt post, which has some congruency, I have to admit- I really admire how MySql managed within the confines of GPL for so long, without forking the codebase into a 2nd project. Having used MySql for several years, I sat in on the Sun/MySQL acquisition conference call a few months ago, and was inspired by what they were doing… But thats another blog post.

So one of the benefits of a second, propietary EULA is accountability, and the ability to create a defined support model, prioritization of features for releases, and documentation. I imagine these needs were why that merger took place.

Many people today are expanding on previously derived works- much like in music and film- Something like a remix. They use something under GPL that fills 80% of the gap, and fix that last 20% to fill the complete need.

But without an open codebase, its tough to extend or expand. Maybe this is Bill’s frustration…?


Jem says:

The way he equates ‘free’ with price, and ‘open source’ with GPL just show you how deeply he feels about defending the concept of proprietary software.

Although it could also be he has yet to review the website. When he described his ideal office environment a few years ago, he tried to show how a top CEO could be kept informed yet still he seemed fairly distant from events happening on the ground.

GShock says:


it’s prob not just me – and, i think that there is nothing wrong or uncool about billg’s letter which’s link was posted above.

i think it’s cool, as a matter of fact, and i would write some similar stuff. i’ve only been able to send in a very few donations for software in my life. sometimes software makes me want to throw in a donation, hardly ever i know, but the thought goes in my queue.



Merijn Vogel (profile) says:

Making business creating open source software is possible

As a company we make one-off software products or services for our clients. On request we will usually ship the sourcecode for it to said customers. This way they have the (feel of) flexibility of being able to go to a competitor; and some clients have done that.
The reason we can do this is that our service is not the sourcecode, it’s helping clients to meet the softwareneeds for their businesscase.

mtest (user link) says:

Review of above

well I agree with most of the people. NOT EVERY COMPANY IS MSFT neither they have this sort of funding like gates.

If you want rapid development of your product you have to take this step!

besides the software business is so saturated and eating up any competitor which tries to stand in front of them that this is the only way possible now.



Jess says:


Because philanthropy serves a greater purpose, it serves a closed source society. The complete opposite of freedoms of open collaboration. Its like claiming your kids lemonade stand can cure cancer but your not allowed to source it because it’s closed licensing.

Sounds like he’s desperately edging to prove something that doesn’t exist in nature. How many people do you think who use Linux on a day to day basis will tell you open source was bad because it was open and constantly fixed?

The open source nature is nothing but collaboration you need to be a complete idiot if you never bothered to look at the changes under the hood. The thing that separates open from closed source is the “keep it simple stupid” nature generally in open circles we follow this ideology “if it ain’t broke why fix it” something only monopoly like M$ would abuse.

It’s like tending a garden and constantly over feeding the plants, that’s basically how closed source works. Then folks complain about bugs, issue, broken crap and waiting on the desktop to install several hundred updates before needing another reboot.

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