Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The Great Debate

I attended a debate at the Australian Computer Society last night:

THE GREAT DEBATE - Microsoft & Commercial Software VS Linux & the Open Source World

The Debaters:

Richard White, CEO and founder of Cargowise edi Pty Ltd. Richard's skills combine a unique 17 year understanding of the international trade and logistics industry combined with over 25 years in both software development and business management.

John-Paul Syriatowicz, Managing Director, co-founder and co-owner of Squiz.net, Australia’s largest content management system vendor. Squiz are recognised as industry leaders in relation to open source software. They are regularly invited to participate in industry forums and to consult with parties considering the use of open source software.

I found the debate entertaining, but not informative.

Ten formal questions were asked and then audience questions were accepted. The formal questions were predictable and the two minutes allocated for answers only allowed each side to rehash common arguments without providing any real evidence for their assertions. For the most part, the audience was left to make sense of the arguments themselves and understand why they made the case for each side. This approach worked fine in this case because the audience was comprised of students and industry professionals who were obviously well abreast of the cases for and against before the debate started, but I doubt many people walked away with any additional knowledge.

The questions from the floor were more interesting for me. With the formal questions being so common, it was interesting to see what people in the audience were actually thinking about. The first question asked was about mobile devices and which software model would take the lead in that area. A question like this, after so many predictable arguments, was refreshing to think about. Who would lead this market and why? I was speaking to JP after the debate and he mentioned that those audience questions got him thinking about topics he had not considered. I speak to him a lot about software development, but I hadn't heard his argument for mobile devices before. He believes that open source software will lead the way in the mobile device market because open source developers get excited about "just making things work". I have to agree with that.

One part of the debate that was disappointing was a switch that occurred after question seven. For the last three questions, Richard argued for open source and JP against. This was a staged switch, obviously designed to be entertaining. While it did get the audience laughing as the debaters pretended to have trouble with their arguments, it basically wrote off the last three questions and degraded the debate to a bit of a joke.

I think it was fairly clear to the audience that neither debater was strongly opposed to the other's views. Both Richard and JP seemed to be on the same page, seeing merits in both models and using software where they will get the most benefit rather than because of how it is produced and licenced. That's a great view to have for two people trying to grow their businesses, but it doesn't lend itself to great debating. Perhaps pitting two evangelists against each other would have produced some real heat, thrown up some less common arguments and left the audience with something to ponder.

So who won? The adjudicator declared no knock-out blow, although some may consider Richard wanting to switch sides as a general surrender. The audience was more clear, giving it to Linux & the Open Source World. Hardly a surprising result considering the number of UTS IT students in the audience.