08 February 2010

Microsoft's Sulphurous Cloud Computing Offer

I've written before about Microsoft's attempts to break into the world of academic computing, currently dominated by GNU/Linux, by offering all sorts of super-duper deals on HPC systems. Well, now it's trying the same trick with cloud computing:

Microsoft and the National Science Foundation have announced an agreement that will provide free access to advanced cloud computing resources for select NSF-funded researchers for the next three years.

It is our shared hope that the storage and computational power of Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, and access to easy-to-use client and cloud tools will enable researchers to accelerate scientific breakthroughs in vital yet highly complex areas of inquiry, ranging from climate change to genetics.

So, basically, you sell your digital soul by using Windows instead of GNU/Linux and get three years' cloud computing in return: I don't think even Faust would have gone for that one.

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Noel O'Boyle said...

My own hobby horse is to question how many 'scientific breakthroughs' are being held back by a lack of computing power.

Glyn Moody said...

@baoilleach: what kind of thing did you have in mind?

Noel O'Boyle said...

Well, I was just referring to the text from Microsoft above. It just seems that there is a perception popular among hardware providers that increased computing power is what's holding us back from scientific discoveries. I would consider a paucity of experimental data, as well as the time required to analyse and think about the data, the limiting factors. (But I know, if only I had a 3D interactive cave with surround sound and virtual reality!! :-) )

Glyn Moody said...

@baoilleach: ah yes, I see. Indeed, there's a basic assumption there - although, to be fair, it's one *any* computing company is likely to make...

Darryl said...

Im not sure what you're point here is Glyn ?

Is it that another group or company are offering services that GNU/Linux does? or is it that it's Microsoft that is doing it?

It appears to me to be just normal competition, and business practice. If there is a requirement for a service then there is no reason why someone cannot make use of that service.

I would have been more happy to see that there are alternatives to GNU/Linux and that the linux community would welcome any competition with a "bring it on" attitude.

As opposed to making claims that if you do no use GNU/Linux you are somehow selling you're soul to the devil.

Services should be based on merit, and there should be no restrictions on what methods or companies are used to acheive a result. If GNU/Linux dominates the field then there should be nothing to worry about with some competition. It should be incentive to do better and compete on merit and not ideologies.

I sometimes wonder what the fettish with MS is all about, and why they are seen as such a threat?

Which makes me wonder what the purpose of GNU/Linux actually is, is it a weapon to fight MS or is it a stand on it's own right alternative product?

would this article have been written if say DEC offered online HPC service using VMS ? or UNIX? or BSD?

Thats the great thing about the world we live in, we have choices, and we are free to make those choices. We dont have to follow the status quo, that because GNU/Linux is dominating a field that no one else is allowed to enter that field. I would find this very restrictive. Not having a choice and the freedom to choose.

You dominate a field by being good at it, this is always temporary, and any group must be on guard that someone else does not provide something better to take away that dominance.

I dont see the constant attacking of everything MS to be healthy, it would be better to just say try them and try US, and YOU decide which is better or more effective for you.

But to maintain dominance by attacking and trying to demean you're perceived opposition is not really the best way to get things done.

It's what you do it war, if you're beliefs are strong enough and you're strength is large enough you can force you're idea's upon others. But it's a method that most do not like. It's better to be open and allow freedom to choose. Enforced freedoms are not real freedoms at all.

And I see if GNU/Linux got their way, they would send MS out of business, so that they could fill the gap. In the process you remove the choice and freedoms of people to choose for themselves.

Glyn Moody said...

This is an area I've written about a lot on this blog, so I've probably cut corners in this post for those who've not seen the others: apologies for that.

I am not “against” Microsoft, or even “for” GNU/Linux. I am “against” closed approaches, and “for” open ones. Closed ones lock people into ways of doing things, which slows down progress; it also makes it harder to share – notably to share knowledge, which I see as one of the primary engines of making a better, fairer world (and maybe even one that does not collapse into neo-Dark Age barbarism.)

The point of this post is that Microsoft's cloud computing offer would encourage scientists to use its closed-source programs and proprietary file formats (OOXML is not open, whatever that nice rubber stamp from ISO may say: no one else has or probably ever will implement it fully apart from Microsoft.) So, yes, this article most certainly would have been written had we been talking about DEC, or IBM, or Google offering a similarly closed approach.

GNU/Linux is not the better approach because it's GNU/Linux: it's better because it's open. It is precisely because you can leave it and take with you all your data in open file formats (like ODF) that I recommend it. If FreeBSD took over, fine; if some other open source operating system comes along (as is likely one day) supporting open formats, then well and good.

So I agree with you: we need choice, we need a level playing field so that better options can come along and succeed in the future. But Microsoft (still) does not offer that – although the EU has been slowly pushing it in that direction. When Microsoft ecosystem is as open as the GNU/Linux ecosystem, I shall have no hesitation in recommending it....

I hope this clarifies things; if it doesn't please ask away...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you're reply.

My main issue with "open" and "closed" is again down to choice, I have no doubt FOSS, or OSS model is good, but it's certainly not the only model that appears to work well. And why should one group who believes in one model rally against other and apparently effective and viable models.

It seems very dependent on who the "target" is, if it was just "if you develop closed systems you are evil". Then I have to ask why Google, Red Hat, IBM, Novell, SUN, Conicial and so on all create proprietary or closed systems.
They may also product Open Source code, (as does MS), and Closed code (as does MS). But none of those listed companies have an Open Ecosystem. Like any business, much of what they do and their methods will be internally proprietary. Just as the FSF's full doner list, or executive expenses are not in "the commons". It's a closed ecosystem.

As for not being locked in in open platforms and not in closed. If someone wanted to create applications to the OOXML standard, (and some have) that is their right, and their choice, I dont see it as lock in to be fixed on a single standard, (ODF or OOXML). Either way, once you choose a standard you are "locked-in" by default.

And being able to see and modify the code only benifits a very small fraction of the USER community, I think the Linux kernel would be one of the largest project, and it has on average around 1000 active developers, a very small number, especially if you claim 10 million or more Linux users.

And if you even see a Linux meeting, with a show of hands who ever looks at code, or modifies it (or can) very very few hands ever go up.

So being open source does not really hold any advantage to most users. And being closed is not a sin. Just as asking people to pay for you're work is what actually makes the world work.

So open source is a model, yes, but it's not the only model, and it's not evil should you decide to choose a model that suits you.

It's also not evil to use the benifits of a model that you prefer.

I however do feel it's evil for someone to say "it's our way or the highway bud".

I applaud you're belief system, but it's IMO not right to impose it on others.

I try to look at the motive for these attacks, and most of the time, based on subject matter it's clear it's a war against Microsoft. The weapon of that war appears to be a freedom to dictate what you can and cannot use.

Refering to MS as "tryig the same trick" and saying "basically you sell your digital soul by using Windows instead of GNU/Linux"

So am I selling my digital soul by using an ATM with proprietary code on it?
Or am I selling my digital soul by doing a google search and using Addsense ?

Anonymous said...

Im quite sure im not, (selling my digital soul).

By refering to selling you're digital soul (should you not use GNU/Linux)seems to relate God and the Devil, Good and Evil.

Thou shall not idealise false gods. type of attitude. You know that "if you dont believe in our daity then you are damned to the fires of hell. It seem unnessarily inflamatory, and aimed squarly at MS. Everyone else gets a free pass.

Just my opinion, im impartial, I dont find the war between Open and closed, Good and evil, RMS and Gates, is a sorry look from an outsiders point of view, I started using linux around 1995 and provided professional support and maintenance of Unix, Linux, VMS, Windows and so on, I watch the progress and politics in the field and most people are put off by that, seems technical quality has taken a back seat. Which is a shame.

In those same 15 years, MS products have gone far ahead, and the chance of gaining good market share IMO, went away after WinME, and after they fixed their memory management system. Linux's Memory manager at that time was far better.
But I use what does the job, and leave politics out of what should be technical debates.

Thank again for you're posts. Sorry for length, (rambling). :)

Glyn Moody said...

Well, this is all a highly-contentious area, as you probably know. But I tend to view this as partly a moral issue, not just a technical one. It's about sharing stuff – be it code, or information – and a responsibility that people have to share digital stuff that has (effectively) zero marginal cost, and is truly non-rivalrous (we can both have a copy). In those circumstances, it seems morally wrong to me *not* to share, because you are depriving others unnecessarily.

And yes, you are right that Google and the rest don't share everything – and therefore are not perfect in this regard. As to the FSF not sharing personal details, I think there's a recognised tension between openness and privacy, and that rights to privacy can trump rights to openness (because of the harm that not respecting privacy can cause).

As to the issue of whether sharing code really benefits many people when only a few hundred or thousand code, I believe it does, since they code for the rest of us. Equally, I can always pay them or someone else to code for me: not an option with proprietary software.

And I don't think you are locked into ODF in the way you are with OOXML. With the former, you can apply transformations to the underlying XML code that are not possible with OOXML because of the way that the latter is tied to Microsoft's older specifications (for example, the existence of binary blobs.)

You say it's about the right to choose. Well, yes, but only in the sense that people can choose whether to share food with those who are starving: are you saying that they have a right *not* to share that food? Now, admittedly the choice there is starker, but I don't think most people would say that the right to choose trumps a moral duty to share in these kinds of situations. People will disagree *when* sharing does have this power, but for reasons I've outlined, I think it does apply to all digital artefacts because infinite sharing comes at zero marginal cost (rivalrous, analogue ones are trickier).

And no, you're not selling your soul when you use closed-source ATMs or Google because there is no lockdown, no capture, as there is if you adopt non-open formats for data, so the situation is very different.

It's really not about Microsoft: I criticise many other companies (Monsanto is high on my list at the moment, and arguably far more dangerous than Microsoft, because people are being harmed more directly as a result of its commercial policies, especially gene patents – anti-sharing at its worst). And as Google becomes ever-more powerful, so my concerns grow there. If you can bear to read any more of my posts in the future, you'll see that this is the case.

Anonymous said...

"As to the issue of whether sharing code really benefits many people when only a few hundred or thousand code, I believe it does, since they code for the rest of us. Equally, I can always pay them or someone else to code for me: not an option with proprietary software."

I see this as exactly the same model as proprietary companies use. without the sharing of the code. MS codes "for the rest of us". yes, I can also pay them to code for me. Also ive done a huge amount of paid programming on proprietary systems, and guess what, I was hired by people who wanted code for them.

So saying that is not an option for proprietary software in not true. The model is the same, except proprietary software companies use that as a continuous model, that seems to work quite well.

ODF Vs OOXML, they are both ONLY just standards. remember the S100 Bus, or ISA bus, or centronics, or VHS and Betacam? they are all standards. A standard is just that, it's a documented method of doing something.
standards are adopted by virtue of their popularity, (usually due to functionality). ie if lots of people find value in the standard, they will use it more, and it will become a defacto standard, and mabey later ratified as a formal standard.

Arguing the merits of one standard against another has never resulted in great choices between standards.

It was strongly and accuratly argued that BETA Video standard was much more technically superior than the VHS standard. (that's why it kept being used in studio's). But VHS became the standard, and beta was religated.

And "being tied to Microsoft's older specifications" is seen as a good thing for industry, it shows a continuance of compatibility.
It shows they are not willing to break older formats and specifications, and that is something industry, and users in general see as a plus. Not a minus.

It's like saying ODF (beta) is technically better, but all you're huge collection of VHS tapes will no longer work. (thanks, but no thanks).

Again, trying to enforce, and legislate you're morals and choices does not read as freedom to most people.

Anonymous said...

"You say it's about the right to choose. Well, yes, but only in the sense that people can choose whether to share food with those who are starving: are you saying that they have a right *not* to share that food?"

Um, YES I do have a right *NOT* to share food. As you do and must, it's a free world.

You have that right as well, and you exercise it all the time, im sure somewhere there are starving people right now, and im sure no one is coming to you're door and forcing you to give them food.

What about if im starving too, ive been given some food, and by you're law I have to give that food away to the guy next to me because he is starving. Sure I might die of hunger, but im forced (according to you) to give my food to the starving.

OK, food is not code, and who im giving my code to are not starving or poor.

There is a small but significant group of people who are making vast sums of money from FOSS, you have the likes of RMS globetrotting, CEO's of Google, Red Hat, Conicial, Novell, Sun, Oracle, FSF and so on raking in millions or billions of dollars a year on the packs of you're morals.

To equate that the *having* to give food to the starving does not ring true to most industry observers.

was it not zimmerman who called it a "stupid lottary" that very few actually win. "I myself happend to win that lottary".

Torvals, got $20 million dollars worth of stock options from RH, I harding think he's starving or struggling. again a small group have become very rich on FOSS, most dont.

This is opposed to Microsoft, that not only makes a group of people very rich, but they employ around 100,000 people with a wage, to allow them to live, buy food, houses, cars, educate their family and all the good things people need to exist.

So it appears FOSS has a rich class elite, and "the rest", mabey a small group of middle class paid programmers, and the support of the unpaid volenteer class, or the poorpers. It's a clear well defined FOSS class structure, more divided than a corporate structure.

So I dont equate the FOSS mega rich as the starving class that I have any moral obligation to donate to.

Anonymous said...

"And no, you're not selling your soul when you use closed-source ATMs or Google because there is no lockdown, no capture, as there is if you adopt non-open formats for data, so the situation is very different."

can you elaborate on "lockdown and capature" please.

They appear to be typical terms applied in the "war on MS".

IS "lockdown" or "lock-in" something you are forced to do, (like giving food to the starving)?

I dont feel im locked down by using proprietary code, not nealy as much as I would if I had to give away my produce by law.
I find that requirement much more restrictive, and in fact I see it as taking away my freedoms.

Im not forced to use Proprietary software, I have a choice, I also have a choice as to what type of car I buy, house I buy, food I buy and so on. If I dont like one product I dont buy it, I use an alternative. That is freedom as I see it.

It's not freedom to me to be forced to give away my efforts, but I would rather have a choice to do so or not. It's not lock-in, and im just not sure what you mean by capture. so ill leave that. but it smells a little like a dig at MS.

Anonymous said...

"It's really not about Microsoft: I criticise many other companies (Monsanto is high on my list at the moment, and arguably far more dangerous than Microsoft, because people are being harmed more directly as a result of its commercial policies, especially gene patents – anti-sharing at its worst). And as Google becomes ever-more powerful, so my concerns grow there. If you can bear to read any more of my posts in the future, you'll see that this is the case."

You use MS as you're standard for everyone else, ('monsanto is more dangerous than Microsoft').

What danger ? what harm ?.

Is it patents, commercial policies, 'anti-sharing', or power that you are against?

Or is it a percieved "harm" and not sharing creates.

These 'isses' you rally against are what appears to be normal and acceptable human endevours.

Yes, you have a right not to give away you're food, money, time, energy or intellect, just as you have a right to Give it away should YOU choose.

starting and running a successful business is something that is very acceptable to people. And if you're good at you're job and get rich and powerfull thats fine too.

Like it or not this is how the world works, and has allways worked it's a framework that appears to have been and is very successful, it's not perfect (nothing is) but it's a framework that allows human co-existance and interaction. It's a natural evolution, just as is you're right to profit off an idea (or invention) that you alone thought of.

It's such a successful system, that the laws of nations have ratified it, there are laws and restrictions, patent laws, copyright laws, corporate laws and so on.

So be successful within those laws is the goals, sure some break the laws or bend them. That too is natural (and why we have the laws in the first place). And if you are caught you are punished. Fair enough.

Sure it's a dangerous model, and it's flawed, but for hundreds of generations it's evolved and continues to evolve. For someone to just come up and say "that model is dangerous or wrong or anti-sharing" so therefore its bad and "do it our way" it's better.

Looks like you are the only authority of all things right and moral, and you're model will fix all the ill of the human race !.

It's a big call.

Especially when the vast majority are very happy with our little'ol highly flawed social system we have in place now.

Im not 'anti-sharing' im pro choice.

Glyn Moody said...

I've obviously not been clear: I'm not talking about mandating any of this by law; I'm talking about moral choices. I write this stuff not to tell people what to do, but to get them to think about what they do and why.

So the central issue for me is what is lost when you share something that has zero marginal cost and is non-rivalrous? It's not even like food which can only be eaten once: this is “magic” food that can be eaten billions of times: so how, morally, can you refuse to share it? How can you justify your "choice" that says even though I could give you this magic food, and I wouldn't lose that food by doing so, I won't give it to you?

You seem to worry that a few people may make money from this magic sharing: so what? Isn't it more important that many millions/billions can benefit for nothing? Why stop that sharing just because a few people benefit disproportionately? Isn't that rather petty?

You keep returning to choice, but every society has to set limits to what range of choices people have. It's a question of where you draw the line, and which aspects of choice take precedence. Again, I'm not trying to lay down that law, just to get people aware of the alternative to not sharing, and the benefits of taking a different approach.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for you're reply.


"zero marginal cost and is non-rivalrous?"

IMO, both those terms are incorrect, it has significant marginal costs, and it's certainly rivalrous.

If you stick with you're food analogy, thats fine, so here we go.

You have in you're possesion a magic food that in infinate supply, so why not give it away.

But what if im a midwest farmer, I have a family to support, employers, massive invenstment in land, and massive investment in infrastructure to grow, process and sell my product.

Sure your food costs nothing, (to copy) allthough it's well argued that it cost billions of dollars to create.

So the farmer goes broke, his children goes without, (food, house, education).
The farmer employes a 1000 people, the farmer, his family, his employees all pay tax, they all need to house, cloth, educate, and survive in the world we all live in.

So you giving away a food, that you can make magically is going to do a great deal of damage to anyone who grows, or creates food for people.

So you've certainly created a rivalrous economy. Yes, I agree it might be zero marginal cost to you, giving away the copy of the code, but the cost to those not involved with you're code/food are forced out of business. People go broke, starve (they can always eat you're magic food, but they may not like it).

And what about choice, what if people dont like the taste of you're magic food, or what if you're magic food was considerd not edable by certain group. (like india not eating cows, or pork in some countries).

So would you think it a good thing if you're free magic food, it's free and infinate, so you will destroy all competition.
Thats lockin, what If I want to buy an alternative product ? I cant because there are no alternative, because no one can compete with you're free offerings.

So it's very rivalrous. and destructive to the food industry.

And again, if you dont like you're type of food, as you're destroyed all opposition, you lock everyone into you're product. with no alternatives.

Do you find it morally correct to put people out of work? To lock someone into you're product, and remove the choice of people to buy or grow their own food (or code)?

So "what is lost" is the livlyhood of many people, also lost if you're freedom to choose alternative products or services.

How do you justify the "zero marginal cost" issue. Is it because it's only bit's on a DVD? that you can freely copy and give away.
That about if the contents of that DVD is a movie, that cost $50 million dollars to make?
Does it still have zero marginal cost?

In you're world you would be able to freely give copies of that movie away for free. And if everyone did that, do you think someone would cough up the $50mil in the first place to create the CONTENT of you're DVD?

I doubt it,

Anonymous said...

im a musician, Ive spend 10 of thousands of hours or more learning, studing and improving my skills.

If I play a piece of music and put it on a CD, your claim as it's digital it has zero marginal cost.

Sure, I learnt guitar in my own time, and was not paid for it, but I could of spent that same time doing something that makes me an income. So why does my efforts represent to you zero marginal cost.

It's the same with software, you can spend years writing code, you're not paid (mabey), but that does not diminish the value of you're work.

Just because you're work is in an abstract form of digital information, does not take away from the value of the data.

The same applies with Free Vs Proprietary software.

Sure you can claim it's non-rivalrous but you are fully away that what FOSS tries to do is compete with proprietary offerings.

Proprietary companies, employ people, they pay them, they create an economy, and enable to live their lives.

Is it morally right for you to take that away from them? just like you want to put all farmers and producers of food out of business?

The fact is it is very damaging to society in general to make moral choices on our behalf.

And you I think need to look at the issue in a more balanced and a socially accepted way.

So getting back to food, if you're goal is morally right, you dont mind the fact that no one will work on improving food production, farming techniques, farm equipment development (and the employment that creates).

Non of those technologies will progress any further from the present state. Who would bother, you cant sell any extra food you grow, and the results of you're technique improvements mean nothing.

Too bad if you dont like you're magic food, or it does not agree with you. It's you're only choice

Same with code, in you're world if everything (software) is free, what incentive is there for anyone else to create or design competing products? there is non.

So what is lost, for you very little, for everyone else,,, everything.

If henry ford gave away his model-T ford, what incentive would there be for other manufacturers to design better car's with more features/functions as competition is destroyed.

same with food, same with code, same with everything. (movies, music and so on).

IT's how our economy works, and has worked for a very long time. It does work, and again it's a massive call to say that it's not the right model for society. And that you have something better to offer. without due consideration of all the ramifications that it entails.

(mass unemployment, no taxes paid, collapse of the economy, collapse of government and the break down of law and order). Sounds dramatic I know, but if you have no one producting, selling, or employing you have no one to pay taxes, and governments require taxes to pay people like police and medical and various other law and order things.

Alot of peoplesee OFSS as a broken model, and why is easy, as you're shown you fail to look at the biger picture, and take it purly from a one sided perspective.

without consideration of what effects it has on other groups, who may like to have the rights to choose, and they may not like you're variety of Food/code.

So no to zero cost and non rivalous, it's of considerable value and competes with many other companies, and even within it's own ranks.

Anonymous said...

people dont buy things and use things based purly on morals. they buy things because they want or need it. Sure morals sometimes enters the equation. but it's certainly not the overriding issue.

It's more about wanting or needing something that they find of value.

If I consider the purchase of a car, the first consideration is price, and then functionality, it's ability to get me from point A to point B with a minimum of effort, maximum safety, reliability and so on. But I want what I can affod that provides me what I want and need.

Same with software, I understand it took alot of work to write software, someone paid programmers money to create something I feel is worth me paying for.

I respect the effort put into their work, and the effort of the company to supply the product at an affordable price, that provides the functionality I require.

I reward their efforts by paying for the product, I give them a real incentive to create something even better in the hope I will reward them for that as well, I may do, if I choose to purchase that product, or I may not, again thats my choice.

I have less respect for someone who sees a company creating a product that people are willing to pay for, copying it and taking away from the original developers efforts.

I dont see that as morally right, (do you?). Why should I reward someone who has taken MSO and created a "free" clone of it, to try to ride upon the efforts of someone else?

I have far more respect for anyone who also respects others, and that respects the rights of others, and the economical system we live with.

I have less respect for groups who seek to devalue human efforts, who devalues software to "just free bits of data".

Sure some of the greatest writings are just words on paper, you can throw it into a photocopier and run off 10,000 copies for basical zero cost. But you take away from the original creater his reward for his work.

Software is not free, even "free" software has significant costs involved.

What if someone did to linux/FOSS what GNU/Linux did to UNIX?
would it be ok for you if I rewrote the kernal as a clone of Linux (containing no direct original code) and put it in the public domain? What If I then made it way better than GNU/Linux so that everyone used my version of *Nix and not GNU/Linux.

It would certainly not be licensed under any GPL, it's still free but it undercuts GNU/Linux, and could very well put you're movement out of business? is that ok.

Is it ok for me to put all the employees of Red Hat out of a job ?

Would it be morally ok for me to take away you're cash cow?
No I dont think so.

What is morally wrong with me creating something people are willing to pay for ? and selling it?

I dont know about you're country, but in my country that is allowed.

It's not morally wrong, it's just not what you want to do. And it's fine if you want to do that, but I have differing morals to you, everyone has different morals, so you have no right to enforce you're morals on me.

There is nothing wrong or evil about creating products or services people are willing to pay for. IMO it is morally wrong to steal or copy someone else that you see as successful for you're own gains, (or for the gain of others).

Why is it a moral war anyway, why is it not based on quality, functionality, and personal choice?

If I choose to give away my code, I can, if I choose to sell it I can, If I choose to work for someone willing to pay me, (so I can exist). To me that is a good thing, not a bad or morally corrupt thing.

Puting morals and "ethics" into the argument does not help you're cause. It appears to hinder it more than help. People rebel against having someone elses morals enforced on them. I know I do.

There is nothing wrong with my morals, and to be told there is is offensive.

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for your detailed replies.

A couple of technical points.

“Marginal cost” refers to the extra cost required to make one more of an item: it does not include the upfront costs. So even if it cost £50 million initially, and the extra cost of making a digital copy, say, were zero, the marginal cost would be zero.

Similarly “non-rivalrous” has nothing to do with rivals. A “rivalrous” good is one like a bicycle: if you own it, I don't own it. “Non-rivalrous” means that if you have it – like a copy of a file – I can have it too without taking away your copy.

You raise the issue of employees being put out of work by free software/content etc. New entrants to a market frequently cause people to lose their jobs. If you want to stop people losing their jobs, you would have to freeze all competition and all innovation. Indeed, companies like Microsoft have caused plenty of people to lose their jobs with *proprietary* software.

But let's accept for the moment that people are losing their jobs because of *free* software; we must also consider the people who *gain* employment thanks to free software in order to calculate the net effect. People are certainly gaining employment – IBM alone employs thousands of people to work on open source, but it's hard to judge the net effect from this close distance in time.

Consider, though, older technologies like the Internet and Web. These have certainly caused thousands of people to lose their jobs of producing proprietary network solutions; but they have also created billions of pounds' worth of economic activity, and probably millions of jobs. Both technologies were released freely, for no cost.

Will people still create if their products are given away for free? Yes - they already do. Free software companies are perhaps the best example of a flourishing, innovative sector, but musicians and other artists are doing it too. The latter are exploring ways of making money thanks to their music and art but not from selling it directly. For example, all of the top pop artists make more money from live performance than from their recordings. In fact, the latter can – and already are – be given away as marketing for the more lucrative concerts.

As to the issue of someone producing a better GNU/Linux than GNU/Linux, I say “do it”. If it's better, it will take over – rightly; if it isn't, it won't. In fact, that's why free software code is generally better than equivalent proprietary code: there's a Darwinian selection that allows better code to rise to the top. That's not possible when proprietary is kept in a black box, locked down with patents.

Part of the problem with this whole discussion is the fact that money is a poor indicator of value – as you rightly point out. So giving away huge amounts of software or content for nothing does not mean that it is valueless. It just means that economics has a hard time capturing all the value that has been distributed. It means that billions of people can now afford to pay for it (because it's free, or nearly free) while still valuing it as highly as people who hitherto paid significant prices. If the prices were still high, they couldn't afford it, and all that value would be lost, making humanity all the poorer for it.