The Tale of the Secret Lasagne

Do you like lasagne? Let’s assume that you do, otherwise this whole thought experiment breaks apart. What if the recipe for lasagne were a secret, guarded by one chain of restaurants?

You’d have to go to one of the restaurants from that one restaurant chain to get your lasagne. The chef there is hiding in the kitchen with his assistants, masterfully layering the pasta, whisking bechamel sauce, and stirring in his huge pot of bolognese. The scents! Garlic, fresh herbs, onions frying in their pans, everything coming together in a choreography of knives, ladles, flour and white chef’s hats. Wonderful!

Only you won’t see any of that, because you don’t get to peek.

The restaurant chain has decided that no one else may know how to make their lasagne. You are welcome to come and eat the lasagne at their restaurant, but **you may not**:

– Share your particular serving of lasagne with anyone else.
– Have the recipe to make your own lasagne at home.
– Take apart the lasagne and guess how it might have been made.
– Change anything about your lasagne.
– Eat this casual lasagne in a business or otherwise commercial meeting.
– Put this lasagne on more than one plate. Only the plate the waiter brought you may be used with this lasagne. If you try to put it on another plate, it will be taken away from you.

The price of lasagne would be entirely at the restaurant chain’s whim.

Are you happy with this situation? Maybe not. Maybe you want to make lasagne at home, for your friends. Maybe you want really spicy bolognese or skip the bechamel sauce and replace the deadcow with veggies so your vegan buddy can eat, too. But you can’t. The restaurant won’t tell you how to make lasagne. You can go ahead and try to figure it out on your own, but lasagne is quite complicated. You’d never get everything right, and then things just won’t taste the way they should. People trying to eat your lasagne would complain. Also, you might get a visit from the restaurant’s lawyers if they find out you’re trying to make lasagne. After all, the company owns patents in lasagne and they have to make sure you’re not copying their secret mix of spices.

You decide that this is not a cheeryhappy situation. You’d rather cook your own food. Maybe you don’t even *like* lasagne that much, even if by far most of the planet is eating lasagne exclusively. You decide that you’ll look around for recipes, maybe there is other pasta you can make.

What you discover is that there are other people fed up with the policies of the restaurant. “Boo,” they say, “we want Spaghetti Carbonara, Texas Ranch style!” Or they want delicious little Ravioli filled with a puréed scampi, suited for business meetings. They want to *know* how these things are made, so they can make their own variations, so they can adapt the dough. Glutene-free tagliatelle for all!

People have special needs like that. Companies are just collections of people, so companies have special needs, too. People want to feel safe knowing that when mother, sadly but inevitably, passes away, her recipe for Pappardelle del Cacciatore is still here to delight friends and family. People want to cook together, share ideas, share recipes, make little changes here and there and when they’ve changed someone else’s recipe enough, they want to call it their own.

It would be silly to keep recipes a secret, yet if you compare recipes to source code, that’s exactly what many companies are doing today. Entire operating systems are delivered in a binary-only form. If you want to use them, you are forced into accepting a license that prevents you from ever figuring out how they work. The company/restaurant even forbids you from sharing the operating system with other people. It’s as if you could only eat your lasagne ready-cooked and finished, always the same lasagne, the same taste. You’d never even know if everyone at your table can actually eat it.

But perhaps times change and people don’t want to be treated like mental prisoners anymore. Maybe one day everyone’s fed up with lasagne. No one visits the restaurant anymore, and because the restaurant doesn’t want to change its policies, it goes bankrupt. Too bad that the recipe was a secret, because now it’s gone. Forever.

## Hints for deciphering this possibly awkward analogy

– The recipe stands for source code.
– The lasagne stands for proprietary programs of any kind. Proprietary means that only one single company controls the program in question, most of the time only that company has the source code and refuses to cooperate with others or, god forbid, share the code. One example for this kind of software is Microsoft’s Windows.
– The cooks who’d rather cook their own pasta symbolize the free software community. With free software (software libre), anyone can see the source code, anyone can make adaptations, anyone can publish their own changes and versions. **Everyone is a cook!** Amateurs welcome.
– The dying mother who takes her recipe into the grave (I’m sorry about that analogy) symbolizes what happens when a company who made non-free, closed software goes out of business. If you’ve been using that company’s software, you cannot be sure that you can ever again use any of the files you and your colleagues created. You cannot continue working with their software because it was secret and is no longer being updated. Your company will have to face the huge expenses of switching to another solution and recovering all the data in its old, non-free and closed files. With open standards and free software, none of these headaches and financial losses would occur.

So, what benefits are there to proprietary software? Wouldn’t you rather cook your own, or eat what other people you know are cooking, and have a say in what goes into the pot?

3 thoughts on “The Tale of the Secret Lasagne”

  1. When I first started reading this post, all I was thinking was “Man, this guy really like Lasagne.”

    Anyhoo, I don’t necessarily have a problem with proprietary software. As a programmer within a company myself, I know that giving customers access to the internals of our software would most likely cause more problems than it would fix, simply due to the complexity of said software(and the fact that many, many customers would expect us to support the changes they made, even if we tell them upfront that we won’t). I’m also not necessarily a fan of everyone getting this software for free and being able to modify it as such. It’s a noble thought, however, I do enjoy eating and having electricity, as well as a roof over my head.

    One thing that I DO have a problem with, however, is proprietary file formats. Those kill me.

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  2. Well, making free software doesn’t mean the software has to be free 🙂 That’s a confusing corner of the English language, it doesn’t have the two different versions of free that other languages have. So we have to use the “free as in beer” and “free as in speech” thingies.

    But anyway, look at MySQL AB, they use a dual-license model and are successfully selling free software. Trolltech too, and Novell. Making free software won’t necessarily make you poor.

    I can see your points about customers expecting you to support their code. Some situations like that just won’t allow an easy switching to an open license. But if you try to imagine that your product had been free software from the start, you wouldn’t have customers claiming that sort of thing. If they want support for their changes, your company could offer support for a nice fee. That way, if a completely incapable programmer at one of your customers messes up, the customer would have to pay you to fix things 🙂 (The question being whether you want that sort of work, but I hear maintenance programmers and troubleshooters are quite well-paid.)

    We do some of that: we pay programmers to write free software to do things we want, or modify existing free software t our needs. One of my colleagues just received the budget to get Ogg Vorbis files to play in a very popular audio and media player, since that’s not easily possible at the moment. It’s a free software project, paid for by us but to the benefit of all, since the underlying media system will be able to handle Ogg Vorbis after that too, and if the system changes then everyone in the world can update the source to make the plug-in work again. And if nobody wants to do that, we will still have a great interest in Ogg Vorbis playback on that platform, so we can again pay for the update.

    I believe we are in a transitional period where purely proprietary software is slowly obsoleted and multi-license software or free software is becoming more and more attractive for corporations. New licensing models and new business strategies are popping up around it. Sometimes it’s even enough to have a free (beer) product and simply sell services for it (Canonical’s Ubuntu for example).
    I might just as well be very wrong with my visions, but in the past I’ve been on the right track more often than not, so I have a good fluffy feeling here 🙂
    Like lots of people, I’ve criticized the music industry’s outdated business model 10 or 15 years ago already, and we’ve pointed to some form of downloads as a way out of dwindling sales. It took them over a decade to react, but now studies say that online music sales will more than make up for losses in CD sales within the next 10 years. I think the situation in the software business has a few parallels.

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  3. I like eating with alde around the corner at the Libanese Spot, where you can get the special “Liver-Shawarma with everything and spicey without-Lactose”. 🙂

    You Fresse rule!

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