BURSTING BUBBLES….My post yesterday about Open Source and the subsequent comments reminded me of a long time problem that I’ve never really found an answer for: how do you criticize excessive enthusiasm for something without sounding like you’re dismissing it entirely? Here are a few examples where this has bitten me in the last few years:

  • The dotcom/internet bubble. I’m a big fan of the internet, but in the mid to late 90s I found myself consistently telling people to calm down about it. I remember one particular encounter, probably around 1996 or so, after our CFO attended a seminar on web tools. He came back wildly enthusiastic about how easy it would be to move all our systems onto the web and make them easily accessible to the outside world. I spent some time explaining that all the back end database work still needed to be done and was no easier on the web than anywhere else, UI development still had to be done and was probably harder on the web than elsewhere, all the business rules still had to be coded, and so forth.

    He decided I just “didn’t get” the web (after a one day seminar!) and was standing in the way of progress. Obviously I took the wrong tack, but how do you convince someone that while web tools are great and allow you to do a lot of new and innovative things, all the ordinary problems of developing big software applications still exist?

  • The stock market bubble, another one that I “didn’t get.” I don’t care what anyone says, PEs in three digits are unsustainable and the only way to value a company is via the discounted present value of its estimated future earnings. I didn’t think web-based companies were a stupid idea ? far from it ? but there’s just no way they were worth what people were pretending they were worth.

    (The bad news: I didn’t invest much in dotcoms and didn’t make very much money from the bubble. The good news: I didn’t lose my life savings when it burst.)

  • Blogging. It should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog that I like blogging a lot. But I don’t think blogs brought down Trent Lott and I don’t think they are going to replace the New York Times either. Blogs are a new niche in news/opinion/chatroom universe, not a replacement.

I feel the same way about Open Source: it’s actually a great thing and has had a lot of influence on the programming community. But it’s focused largely on system level software and tools, and because programmers themselves use Open Source tools so much I think they overestimate its value in the rest of the software world. Like dotcoms, the long term potential of the stock market, and blogs, I like Open Source, but I think its proponents way overstate its actual influence and potential.

But how to say that without sounding like I’m dissing the entire movement? Gotta work on that.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell writes to point me to this paper co-authored by Kieran Healy in which he examines the Open Source movement and comes to some interesting conclusions. Basically, the idea of OSS as a big, bustling, anarchic community doesn’t seem to be true. The vast majority of Open Source projects are tiny (one developer), and the larger projects tend to be managed pretty heirarchically, just like commercial projects. Interesting reading.

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