Friday, June 22, 2007

Stalinist Central Planning Doesn't Work

I was reading through some blogs today and Dana Blankenhorn's posting at ZDnet, The telecom revolution will not be televised, caught my eye. In it, Dana describes becoming "ticked off" at Maria Bartiromo on CNBC as she described the NxtComm show, saying how "'the industry’s heavyweights' were there to 'decide on the future of telecommunications.'"

A few months ago, I was being interviewed by a reporter about Vyatta and why I thought we would be successful. I told the reporter very directly that I believed Vyatta would succeed because (paraphrasing) "...the world has conclusively proven that Stalinist central planning doesn't work." At this point, Tom McCafferty, eavesdropping in the next cube over from me in the Vyatta office, started laughing hysterically.

After the call, Tom stuck his head over the cube wall. "Did I just hear you say that Cisco and Juniper are Stalinists," Tom asked?

"Well, sort of," I replied. "No, I didn't mean that they are communists or have killed millions of people, but only that the future is not served up as the direct result of a grand plan hatched by the strategy office of the market incumbent. I was trying to communicate the fact that companies with large amounts of market power often want to strong-arm their customers into doing what is best for the company, not what is best for the users."

"I was trying to make the point that open-source has a huge community component to finding its direction that proprietary systems just don't," I said. "Therefore it's more responsive to users. Because the technology is open, anybody with a good idea can change it or extend it, unleashing all sorts of creativity that never gets off the ground."

Tom nodded his head and laughed. "I still thinks its hilarious that you just called Cisco Stalinst," he said, sitting back down.

The reality is, it's the same idea that Dana picked up on in his blog. Describe it how you want---"bottom up innovation," "The telecomm revolution will not be televised," or "Stalinist central planning doesn't work"---it's all the same idea. Everybody is finally asking themselves, "By what right do 'the industry’s heavyweights' get to 'decide on the future of telecommunications?'" Is that something users even want? Is that good for anybody but the "industry heavyweights?"

While many people in proprietary software PR assignments like to suggest that somehow open source software is "communist" in nature because the code is open and given away, I contend that in many ways it's very capitalist (Eric Raymond has described it as something entirely different, a "gift culture," in the Cathedral and the Bazaar). The open nature allows many more people to shape the future, both users themselves as well as other vendors. The fact that there is more competition keeps everybody honest and prevents anybody from strong-arming anybody else. Companies that provide value get paid. Those that don't disappear. Don't like the future somebody else proposed? Create a new one. If people like yours better, you win. Don't add value and you can't make a buck, then you die and people pick up where you left off, without orphaned customers or the like. Whatever happens, the "industry heavyweights" aren't allowed to "decide on the future of telecommunications" without everybody else having a say-so in the matter.

So, I'll repeat it again: Stalinist central planning doesn't work. And Dana is right that the telecom revolution won't be televised. It might be carried over a VoIP call through an Asterisk PBX running over a Vyatta network, however.


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