Fair Play and the Profit Motive

Over at Techcrunch Michael Arrington has been talking about alleged illegal collusion amongst angel investors in Silicon Valley.

It always amuses me that people expect an economy based on competition and maximising one’s profits to provide a basis for fair play.

In the same way rugby coaches want their players to have what we in NZ call ‘a bit of mongrel’ in them, but not get penalised. A guy I know played American football as an exchange student to the US years ago and he reported how the two last things that would happen before they hit the field were 1) team prayers; followed by 2) the coach yelling “now go out there and kill those bastards”.

IBM business conduct guidelines for dealing with customers are one of the things I really like about IBM. Simple things like thou shalt not ever never no way make deliberately misleading claims, and perhaps more importantly, if you think a customer has assumed or misinterpreted a feature to be something better than you know it to be, then you’re obliged to immediately put them straight on that. (Something that personal experience tells me a car dealer won’t do). So that all sounds good right? But there’s nothing to stop an  individual manager in IBM calling for a ‘bit of mongrel’ from his team.

No-one ever defines what ‘a bit of mongrel’ actually means of course, but does it mean to focus on honesty and fair play and to remember that ultimately the company’s quarterly result is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Open Source is another similar situation. Let’s take Oracle Unbreakable Linux (which is of course breakable, so we have an issue right up front). OUL is essentially Red Hat Linux. If you look at who invests in developing the Linux kernel it’s 1) Red Hat 2) Novell 3) IBM, and it’s a big drop back to the next guys (Intel).

So let’s share and share alike, OK, but now Red Hat find their investment is being used against them by Oracle, who are quite legally taking it and rebranding it and competing with Red Hat for the support services. Ironically, if your Oracle Unbreakable Linux kernel breaks, It may well be a Red Hat guy who owns the long-term fix at the back-end… even though Oracle has taken the support revenue.

So once again we see the trouble with ideas of fair play, when inserted into an arena based on competition and maximising profit.

What we have happening out there is a commercial fight to the death, with rules that say you have to fight clean, so we shouldn’t be surprised if someone occasionally bites an ear. Our dismay would be less hypocritical if we were to question the whole idea of using competition as the basis of a civilised society.

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