The Ice Wars

Managing Change

Change is the lifeblood of our industry, and our modern society. Managing change is the biggest challenge facing any government. Do we encourage it, regulate it, ignore it, or manipulate it? Is change to be seen as good, or as bad? A force for improvement or a force for destruction?

As with many issues, the answer depends on who you ask. Take the question of new technology, and jobs, for instance. A new and cheaper way of working can put hundreds, even thousands of people out of a job. To the laid-off workers, this is a catastrophe. But to general society it is often easily justified by the wider benefits.

The Ice Trade

One example from history highlights this. From 1830 to the late 1880s, there was a large global trade in ice. Collected from the frozen waters of the northern seas, shipfuls of ice were transported around the globe, from New England to India, South Africa, South America, and Asia. Thousands of men and horses worked in harsh conditions to cut and collect the ice, load it into creaking wooden sailing ships and transport it to tropical countries where it helped to cool living spaces, preserve fruit and vegetables, reduce fevers, and provide the basis for countless gins and tonics. And then, one day, the domestic refrigerator was perfected, and the frozen water trade died, almost overnight.

No-one today would deny that freezing water in your kitchen is endlessly more valuable than transporting blocks of ice across the globe. Where tens of thousands of jobs were lost in a single economic sector, tens of millions of jobs were created in industries made possible by cheap refrigeration, not least in the same New England coastal towns, where cheap ice created the basis for a fishing industry.

Ice is an essential part of the food processing chain, and the invention of cheap refrigeration made today's global food markets possible. In 1833, a shipment of apples, meat, and cheeses sent from New England to Calcutta in India (and buried in a small mountain of ice) was a unique and novel idea. Today, the food trade knows no frontiers.

No Physical Limits

Information technology, likewise, is an essential part of todays' business world. In many ways, the IT systems of the last decades resemble natural ice: an incredibly valuable material hacked out with curious cutting tools by a small band of rugged adventurers, transported with great care to distant places, and mainly catering to the richest consumers only. Like ice, information technology has no basic cost: no expensive raw materials, no inherent limits on production. Ice is simply the solid form of one abundant matter, and information technology is a solid form another abundant matter, namely the human intellect.

Once the techniques of industrial-scale refrigeration were refined, there was no limit to the amount of ice that could be produced, at virtually no cost at all. Similarly, once a particular IT process has been refined, it can be duplicated without limit at almost no cost.

In an ideal world, the story might end here. Ever cheaper IT, bringing revolutionary benefits to businesses across the globe, creating millions of jobs in industries that simply cannot exist today due to the sheer cost of large-scale IT.

It's Not That Simple

It's not that simple, however. Not everyone likes change. The Ice Barons of the late 1880's tried their hardest to block the development of refrigeration. They recognized the change that would come, and they knew it would destroy their empires, built up over 50 years, and generating huge revenues for a few wealthy families.

Although the debate was fierce at the time, today most people will agree that if the Ice Barons had won, if cheap ice had been banned, society would have lost greatly. Whether the Ice Barons could have won is another discussion: most likely the fledging refigeration industry would simply have moved elsewhere, beyond their reach.

So who are today's Ice Barons, and how are they trying to control the changes that will put them out of business?

Only history will provide a final answer, but from where I'm sitting, it looks clear enough.

In the Ice Baron corner we have a number of large software businesses, led by Microsoft. In the other corner, leading the way to ever cheaper and better IT for the masses, we have Linux and the rest of the Open Source community, championed by a reformed and reborn IBM, one of the few large firms to understand and participate in the process rather than fight it.

Battle has been raging on various fronts. One front is the "SCO vs. The World" battle. SCO is a shell company, run by lawyers, that bought the rights to Unix and has turned this into cannon fodder for attacks on IBM, Linux, and other pillars of the Open Source revolution, such as the GPL, the model license defined by the Free Software Foundation and used to great effect by small software producers to protect their work against predators. On another front we have Microsoft, a giant amongst the predators, silently helping SCO and discretely adding digital rights management (DRM) protection to their Office suite which aims to make it not just difficult, but actually illegal, to make interoperable office products such as OpenOffice, which we use at iMatix.

And finally, most sinisterly and most ironically, we have the European software patent battle: in the name of protecting research and development, lobbyists for the Ice Barons (represented by the BSA) have almost convinced the EU to enact legislation that would allow software patents along the American model.

With an initial decision postponed in the face of determined and organized protest, the battle is as yet undecided.

Software Patents

One of the EU's goals is to harmonize business legislation with the US, and a large part of the push to allow software patents is justified on this basis. However, harmonization is not worth any price, and it's worth understanding why US patent law is so flawed before we assume that it's worth copying.

The main problems with allowing software patents are outlined in this open letter to MEPs regarding the proposed software patent directive.

To put it simply: software patents give the Ice Barons an impressive legal tool for strangling the smaller, creative software producers that are revolutionizing our industry.

If software patents are enacted and enforced in Europe as planned, many jobs will be protected in large busineses. A way of life that has worked for decades - namely the volume sale of commercial software at extortionate prices - will continue, for a while. Small independent software produces like iMatix will find themselves unable to innovate. We will either go out of business, turn to non-innovative tasks such as consultancy and support, or move to other places where software innovation is still possible. Software patents will protect jobs, but for each job so protected, ten or a hundred new potential jobs in will be forgone: not in IT, but in every present and future industry that depends on IT. Industries that are as unimaginable today as today's food industry was in 1833.

In the end, change will come, the Ice Barons of the IT industry will melt and vanish under the unstoppable forces of change, but in the meantime we find ourselves in the front-line of a war that we did not ask for, but which we will fight.

Publish and Be Saved

At iMatix Corporation we have seen this war coming for a long time, since we first decided to publish our technology as free software in 1991. Open source software is our best defense against predatory patents: our inventions are published, documented, and distributed.

It leads to another question, of course, namely how does a small independent software producer make money when it gives its best secrets away as open source?

This is something I'll answer another time. For now, we're keeping our eyes on the European software patents battle.

Pieter Hintjens

iMatix Corporation
September 2003

Feedback

Stephen Jones asks: "If I remember correctly you had a story about what happened to the ice industry. I thought it explained how things worked pretty well. If am correct and it was your site that had this article could you please make it available for access."