Obligatory disclosure: I work for Microsoft, but my posts on Slashdot have nothing to do with my job and are not sponsored or endorsed by MS. I've been "defending" Microsoft on Slashdot for a lot longer than I've been working for them; I've also been "attacking" Microsoft for as long as almost anyone else I know -- I've had frustrations with Microsoft software and business practices since 1985 when I first started working with PC-DOS and BASIC 2.0.
The most important thing I learned in debate class was that there are always excellent arguments for both sides of any issue -- otherwise, it wouldn't be an issue. We never deeply discuss the things that we all agree on. The key to a worthwhile discussion is that all arguments be clear, well-reasoned, and factually correct. Unless both sides provide good arguments, nobody will get anything worthwhile from the debate. Unless both sides of an issue are presented clearly, nobody will be able to make an informed decision about which side they want to stand on. In fact, people show a certain amount of distrust towards one-sided discussions of an issue. Arguments should be based on reason, facts, evidence, etc., not loyalty, anger, disappointment, or anecdote.
So what does this have to do with my posts? Good question. Some comments on Slashdot motivate me to post more than others. There are several different types of comments: informative, opinion, and argumentative (presenting an argument for or against a certain opinion). I'll post an occasional "informative" comment when I actually have something factual to contribute, and once in a while I'll even post my opinion. But usually I post because I read an argument from somebody else, and it makes me want to respond.
Why are argumentative comments most likely to provoke a response from me? Well, it (usually) isn't because I'm looking for a fight. And it isn't necessarily that I agree or disagree with the argument. I think it is because arguments are often flawed, unlike opinions (you can't have a flawed opinion! an opinion is an opinion, nothing more, nothing less) and factual postings (unless the poster has not done his/her research properly) are factual, and there isn't much more to say. When I find an argument to be flawed I simply want to fix it, probably for the same reason that people continuously post spelling corrections.
Different flaws strike me differently. When I encounter a standard logical fallacy, I usually just ignore the impulse to worry about it or to post a response. A stronger motivation to respond comes when I read an argument that contains emotional reasoning -- arguing a position based on loyalty or anger, not based on facts or logic. But strongest is when I see an argument that has nothing behind it but the force of 20,000 dumb cows in a stampede. I feel some compelling urge to oppose the stampede (perhaps I should be tested for obsessive-compulsive disorder). For example:
- Microsoft has been tried and convicted of monopoly, so they are guilty and evil and therefore the courts ought to immediately grant summary judgement against them in any case brought against Microsoft.
- The GPL rocks, and all other software development models are obsolete and destined to wither away before the power of the Penguin.
- The RIAA sucks, and everything they do is just plain wrong.
Ok, actually the third point is pretty much true (grin). But the first two are actually complicated issues, with very good arguments to be made for both sides.
- Microsoft IS a monopoly -- but there is no law against being a monopoly (ask a lawyer if you don't believe me). The courts decided that Microsoft DID abuse monopoly power (it is the abuse of monopoly power that is illegal, not simply being a monopoly), but in truth the definition of "abuse of monopoly power" is complex, vague, and even contradictory at times (the definition is in some cases largely based on court precedent, not on actual written law, and often the precedents are contradictory). It is pretty much impossible to run a monopoly in our complex economy without doing something that could be considered unfair (especially since the company management is legally obligated to try to do what is best for the company). And while being convicted of one thing doesn't immediately make you guilty in something else (as many Slashdot posters would have you believe), it often means that the courts will be more wary of your actions or be less tolerant in the future. Of course, for having abused monopoly power, Microsoft does seem to have gotten off easy...
- The GPL IS pretty darn cool, and I think it is a great idea whose time has come. There are some programs that I use almost daily that would probably never have been written were it not for the GPL, so I hope GPL-based programming stays around for a long time. I'd contribute more time programming open source stuff if there weren't legal implications for myself and my company were I to do so. But I find it hard to believe that it could or should be the only model. You see, there is this thing called "competetive advantage" that companies like to have, and they won't give it up easily. (Software is not the only commodity based heavily on trade secrets.) And personally, I'm fond of receiving a paycheck (yes, there are ways that open source can pay, but there seems to be a much greater chance for successfully earning a stable income with closed source). There are arguments on all sides of the issue about GPL vs BSD vs many other kinds of licenses. The issue is really complicated, and only time will tell how things will sort out as far as dominance of one over the other. I'm glad that the GPL and the BSD license have led Microsoft to release more "Shared Source" (which is not the joke that some people seem to think it is) and that competition from GPL'ed software has prodded Microsoft to produce better software to compete. I personally think that different licenses are appropriate for different projects, and that there will always be a place for the GPL, the BSD license, and traditional closed source licenses.
And as a side note: the GPL is infectious/viral -- just because Microsoft says something doesn't make it false. The infectious/viral nature of the GPL is a strength of the license, as well as a weakness -- some companies will choose the GPL because of its infectiousness, and others will reject it for the same reason. If you don't like the words, and accuse Microsoft of using them for bad connotations, remember that both "infectious" and "viral" were used by the OSS community itself to DESCRIBE the terms of the license before Microsoft even got involved. And besides -- don't they have a right to argue their side? There are always multiple ways to say things. Those arguing for something will always use the most positive words to describe it. That is their right, just as it is the right of those arguing against something to use the negative descriptions.
Since this is Slashdot, the herd mentality tends to go against Microsoft. I feel the need to attack the herd mentality wherever it is going, so that means that I tend to attack the anti-Microsoft viewpoint. If there were a pro-Microsoft herd mentality on Slashdot (and if pigs...), I'd be going the other way. Trust me -- at work, there are some real Microsoft Superfans who ignore the fact that Bill Gates is NOT deity, and I take pleasure in calling them on it when appropriate. But that doesn't happen too much on Slashdot, so you won't see too much of that in my comments.
Once in a while (last Saturday, Jan 4 2003, is a good example) I'll post comments while in a bad mood. In those times, my arguments are generally no better than those of the herd, so it is pretty much pointless. I suppose it isn't all bad -- the other side of the argument needs to come up somewhere. But I feel I should apologize for the times when I come off as a jerk. Believe me -- I usually try not to be one.
So what is my objective in all of this? I dunno. What is the objective of any Slashdot poster? I can't say I want to express my point of view, because that definitely isn't the case -- most times I find that both sides of the issue have a lot of truth to them (i.e. that in reality, Microsoft shouldn't have done what it did, but that doesn't mean Bill Gates is Pol Pot, or even that it is any worse than what any other corporate leader would have done in the same situation, etc.), so my point of view isn't with one "side" or the other. Neither is it to make a difference in the Slashdot crowd mentality, although it would be comforting to know that I made somebody give the other side of the issue a few moments of thought. I think more than anything it is simply a need to try to make something "right" or "balanced." A wild argument has been made, so I'll try balance it with an argument in the other direction.
One word that comes to mind for all of this is "apologist." It doesn't mean that I apologize (since the meaning of the word apologize has deviated from the root word's original meaning) or try to prove Microsoft to be in the right -- I'm not trying to justify Microsoft's actions. But perhaps I can explain some of them -- why some decision is not pure evil, or why some people can even pretend to believe that closed-source software is not morally repugnant. I hope that in the process I don't offend too many people. And I hope that perhaps it does some good somewhere.