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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Free Software as a Concept

I got into a bit of a heated discussion the other day about the relevance of Free and Open Software in a modern, Capitalist society. A couple of valid points were set forth that has got me thinking about how accepted norms, ideas and misconceptions hinder the implementation of free software. I will address these by listing some of these ideas before starting to evaluate them one by one.

Before we do that though, what exactly is Free and open Source Software?

FOSS means that the actual code of the software is available to anyone who wants it. It is normally distributed under some version of the GPL or General Public License or some other Free software licenses. Different versions dictate small differences regarding usage, commercial use and so forth but the general idea is as follows: You may use the software as you wish, change it, improve it and release it again if you so choose to the rest of the world. The GPL says that if you use code released under the GPL, improve it and you release it again, you have to release that code under the GPL as well. You are free of course to just keep the code and your modifications to yourself but if you sell or share the program, you must supply the source for it.

You can sell Free software? Yes, yes you can. The explanation most used is that it is "Free" as in in "Freedom", not always as in "Free Beer". Gratis vs Libre. However, since you have to make the source code available upon release (or pretty damn soon there after) the software remains essentially "Free" as that code can be freely distributed. Now that is why most FOSS have no charges associated with them. If I can get the source code for a program, I can build it myself instead of buying it "pre-built". So in charging for FOSS people effectively only charge for their effort in recompiling it, thus charging for a service, not a product. You can buy that Software, obtain the code and give it away for free if you wish as CentOS does with RedHat Enterprise Linux (RHEL is charged for, CentOS is free but both essentially have the same code) Some do insist that their software remain free as in the beer. Ubuntu is one such a case but there are thousands out there.

Now what is the point of free software? Well it is about community, about the pooling of skills and knowledge of individuals for the betterment of the group. Obtain, use, improve, share. This brings with it many other advantages. Many eyes reading your code increases the chance of bugs being found and quickly repaired before they can be exploited. Think this doesn't work? Think it is better to keep the code a secret to avoid people finding the flaws? Well the majority of Web (54%) servers run on Apache, an open source project. Yet IIS, the Microsoft Proprietary equivalent at (21%) is still compromised the most. There are handful of viruses for Linux and they have all been rendered impotent by fixes DIRECTLY in the code, whereas I doubt you could keep up with all the viruses for Windows. Knowing that they can not keep up with fixing all these security holes, even with thousands of coders, Microsoft conveniently shifts the responsibility over to the User who paid for the software. Linux has millions of eyes on its code, so things get spotted sooner and get fixed sooner.

Now, moving on to those points I mentioned earlier.

The ideas are as follows:
1. If a tangible object is not sold, it can not be profitable.
2. Free software is illegal.
3. Only through capital investment can something be improved.
4. Free software requires extensive knowledge to use.

Now let's start looking at these points, the motivation behind them and the error in the logic.

1. If a tangible object is not sold, it can not be profitable.

In a market driven world, the understanding is that giving something away defeats the purpose of business. I have created something, you might want it and the only way for me to make money out of this is by charging you for that something.

Now while this idea does hold true in some cases, people seem to have forgotten that it is the norm, but not the rule. Giving something away does not kill all possibilities of revenue surrounding the something in question. Many people apply this selectively, using the term "free" only in the sense of an expected return in another regard. Think of free gives upon purchase, free lunches to persuade a potential business partner, free trials to attract a sale.

In reality, giving something away for free does not always need to have a motive to positively impact business. It can inspire interest, growth and improvement while generating awareness and other revenue streams, not always directly considered upon conception. In many cases, the free sharing of something can lead to far wider positive repercussions

Let's look at how free software can and does lead to stimulating an economy. You load free software, use it and share it. Some improve on it and these improvements allow more people to use the software. More eyes mean less bugs, less lost productivity due to crashes or attacks which in turn stimulates companies and the economy. In a business environment you need skills though to develop and maintain your systems so you hire IT professionals. By saving money on the software purchase you can devote more to finding proper staff instead of settling for less because you spent a fortune on the software itself. Don't believe me? Have a look at the cost of Microsoft Server 2008R2 and keep in mind that some companies need tens to hundreds of servers. That doesn't even include the actual cost of applications. With less of your budget spent on software, more is free for the other things you really need.

Now take into account the cost of Professional level Antivirus licenses, the cost of attacks and downtime caused by these viruses. Everything soon starts to add up to some incredible levels. The problem is we are so used to this way of doing things we just accept it and can not fathom the idea that this is not the way things should be.

2. Free Software is Illegal.

I had quite a chuckle at this notion but I fear it is rooted in a much darker stigma. People can not believe that something can be absolutely free. It just looks so suspicious. What's the catch? Is this pirated? Some guy from SCO said it infringes on patents.

All these are a sign of how we have been beat into believing good things can not be true. Something that adds value can't be free can it? Well sadly this idea still has a grip on society but the fact of the matter is that free software is perfectly legal, is written and improved by people who do not do it for money. (Mostly anyway. I know Google and some other big IT companies like IBM hire people to work on FOSS projects).

Ever heard of the Firefox Browser? Google Chrome Browser? Xvid video codec? OpenOffice.org? VLC Media Player? All these are free, come with no catches, and deliver outstanding quality, some even besting their Proprietary rivals.

3. Only through capital investment can something be improved.

No. Not even close. Stephen Fry used a good analogy to explain this. You have plumbing in your house but you don't really understand it. Now your friend who does know a bit comes over and makes a suggestion like moving a pipe here or a valve there and even offers to help do it. There is nothing illegal about this, you own the plumbing and without paying a plumber you have improved your system. This is the idea behind Free software. You see something that could be improved and you either suggest it to the Coder or you do it yourself and send it to the coder. More eyes mean more suggestions, more fixes and it is around this idea of sharing that FOSS is built. In the good scientific community knowledge is shared freely between entities, people discover things, publish their discoveries and humanity as a whole benefits from the advancement of knowledge. Why should software be any different?

4. Free software requires extensive knowledge to use.

Shall I recall that list mentioned in point 2? Many people use FOSS and do not even realise it. Yes there are some systems that need a proper professional working with them but these are the types of systems where you need someone skilled to do it anyway like mail servers etc. There is an absolute plethora of FOSS that have been designed with normal users in mind, making things simple and easy to use. From Operating systems to Browsers, to just about any type of application you can think of. Choice is a major pillar in FOSS and that is something it represents better than anyone. Whether you are a guru looking to dive under the bonnet of your system or whether you just want to check your mail and use your PC at home without any tweaking required, there is a Free and Open Source solution available to you.

So where do I start, you ask. Well there are many places but I would suggest looking at some of the sites below to see what FOSS can do for you.

Ubuntu. A free operating system that anyone can use.
Firefox. A free web browser that leaves Internet Explorer in the dust
OpenOffice.org. A free office suite that has all the features you could need.

David

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