January 19, 2009, 11:34 AM — The cold winds of recessionary pressures were blowing around Pentementi Mountain as the two technologists made their way to Master Foo's cave near the summit. The WIFI signals had long disappeared from their netbook gadgets but text messaging still worked on their cellphones. Contact with the valley below helped them feel connected to the Twenty First, or was that the Twentieth?, Century.
"Master Foo", they shouted. "We come without an appointment and beg your indulgence. Would you have a few minutes to advise us on an enterprise application development strategy question we are struggling with?"
Master Foo was twiddling his beard with one hand and twiddling the control knobs on his MP3 player with the other. It was not clear if he heard the question or simply saw the two perplexed technologists in the distance. He beckoned them to approach. While they did so, he wrapped his legs into full lotus and took a chakra aligning, mind focusing, spine straightening, deep breath. His hands sat in his lap, thumbs touching, cradling what looked like a 4 GB USB Compact Flash card in his hands.
"Master Foo, we have an application we are developing for an enterprise. The application needs a module to do XYZ and there is a very good open source module, under a liberal license, that does XYZ very well."
"The day will come, when that is true for all values of XYZ", said Master Foo. "It is the universal law of causes and conditions at work. The one-ness of all things, the no-self, I am your source code and you are mine for we are one and we our source code is inter-dependent to the point of oneness. This is technological 'Annata', as my friends and I refer to it on the Pali IRC channels."
The technologists exchanged puzzled glances as Master Foo beamed one of his famously enigmatic smiles. He raised a bamboo cane just as the second technologist was about to start talking. Disconcerting images of Dr. Greg House flashed in the minds of the technologists, but they kept their silence and let Master Foo speak.
"Let me guess how it goes from here", he began. "You have found that module XYZ is perfect except for one or two critical things that it just doesn't do. You want to implement those yourself and are wondering how best to do it. Part of you thinks that forking the code is the way to go. After all, the critical missing things are valuable and will lead to a competitive edge."
From the slow nodding of the technologists it was clear that Master Foo was on the right track. He continued, waving the bamboo cane around in the air as he did so.
"The other part of you thinks that contributing the new functionality back to the community is a better option. It has the benefit that the code is not forked, retains your ability to benefit from improvements made by the rest of the community but potentially results in the loss of a competitive edge."
"Yes, that's it!", the two technologists shouted in unison, hoping against hope that the next utterance from the Great Man would solve the conundrum for them.
"If an ant is squashed in a tree, but you are not there to see it, does it make a noise?"
Further annoying flashes of Dr. House, running through a gateless gate, arose in the minds of the technologists. Again, they kept their calm. They waited in silence to see if Master Foo would answer his own question. His next utterance, predictably perhaps, was another question.
"If a Gorilla sits under a tree, do the ants in the tree try to move him?"
"Master Foo", one of the technologists ventured, "we have no idea what you are talking about."
"You asked a question and I gave you the answer."
Master Foo rose, dusted off his robes and bowed to the two technologists. The audience was clearly at an end.
Walking back down the mountain, sullen and deflated, the technologists tried to figure out what Master Foo meant by his so-called "answer".
"Let's start with ants.", said the first technologist. "Ants are a form of bug. Think software bug. Maybe the tree is the source code hierarchy. The great thing about Open Source is the potentially awe-inspiring power of a community of developers to squash bugs in the tree and drive quality. Sure, the bleeding edge of all these open source projects bleeds profusely but the core is, more often than not, fantastically solid. The GNU C compiler, Apache, Linux Kernel, vi/emacs, Firefox etc. etc."
"Sounds plausible", said the second technologist. "But in his second utterance, ants were not analogous to software bugs, they were in a futile attempt to move a Gorilla from under a tree. What is that all about?"
"Maybe in the second utterance, the ants are proxies for the individual developers who squash bugs - ants - and the Gorillas refers to a
mega-company that arrives and sets up business in some part of the software world. Should individual bug-squashers try to fight the Gorilla or somehow find a way to co-habitate with the Gorilla?"
"That depends.", replied the other technologist. "There are may factors that decide whether you try to progress a software business via cooperation, competition or coopetition."
"Not only that", the technologist continued, "but Gorillas exist and ants exist - there is no particular reason to think that one has a greater survival strategy than the other. Both Gorillas and ants are very viable life forms."
"Ah!", replied his comrade in cogitation. "That would be true in a world without mankind. The poor Gorilla is in a more precarious position than the ant - by a long, long way."
"True", the other technologist replied and silence fell...
"Well, if evolution and human folly will kill off the Gorilla maybe we should side with the ants?". More silence.
"Unless we want to take a shot at replacing the Gorilla. Maybe in Master Foo's language, humankind and its corporate abstractions are the Gorillas? The only real danger we have in the world is ourselves. Both sound plausible. Maybe that is why we did not get a straight answer from Master Foo?"
"Maybe. Maybe it is because, human kind and its corporate abstractions could, in some alternate universe, operate like an ant colony with respect to complex software code. No self. 'Annata' as Master Foo called it. One great big forest of computer code that we collectively care for, to our collective advantage as a species."
The two netbooks the technologists carried, beeped, signalling re-entry into WIFI connectivity at the base of Pentementi Mountain.