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Mark D. Roe [opinions]

Free software philosophy in business [free-software] [philosophy] [open-source] [business-models] [business]

When we enter the world of “free and open source software”, most of us will choose one or the other philosophy. This choice is usually made easy by the people that guide us when we enter this world. We are at a point where the philosophies behind free software, which have been heralded by Richard M. Stallman and others, are threatened; as more people make the jump away from proprietary operating systems, less of them know about these philosophies. Fewer people will weigh the decision for themselves.

What is the difference?

Open source distinguishes itself from free software, seemingly, only in the sense that you don’t have to deal with all of that “mushy” social stuff. Who needs to be socially responsible when the GPL and other copyleft licenses protects us, right? Open source is concerned with “marketing” and what proprietary vendors of software or large business executives think. And they’re the same people who watched the advent of the personal computer industry and its subsequent lock down by patents, end user agreements and copyrights, and looked upon it as a model to be copied in all other business. Many of these executives are the same that idolize the “achievements” of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The Open Source Initiative says we must not mention the social agendas, but that we must focus on all of the things that make FOSS technically superior. Further, they assert that the open model, which they say makes FOSS what it is, would have developed even without the existence of the social concerns within the software world that fueled the free software movement in the beginning.

It is absolutely essential to mention our political and ethical vision, regardless of what anyone thinks

The free software movement, of course, is also concerned with the technical advantages of an open model of development. However, they understand that it is absolutely essential to mention our political and ethical vision, regardless of what anyone thinks. There is no need to try to hide the social agenda—especially when it is explained with fortitude. How could any right-minded business man do anything but revere these philosophies? Most of the time, it is not what you say so much as how you say it. The philosophies behind our current open model are about as political as anything else, about as political as you make it out to be, and they are nothing new. These ideas work in the business world. There are many examples of open models working well in the business world. The Free Software Foundation is working hard to maintain and defend the GPL and to spread the true value (freedom) that comes with this technically superior software.

What it all means

Our open model of development would not have been spurred on as quickly or decisively, if not for the social concerns. It is also true that the business world’s acceptance of this open model would probably not have developed as quickly without the less socially concerned actions of the open source movement. All the same, they left out the social concerns, feigned comradery with proprietary developers, and failed to mention the most valuable asset of free software; they were just looking for the easiest solution to the problem of corporate adoption. The easiest solution is hardly ever the best solution. We can increase the adoption of free software without having to be quiet about the problems of proprietary software.

We can increase the adoption of free software without having to be quiet about the problems of proprietary software

It can be difficult to talk about these issues but there are methods that we can employ. As Richard Stallman put it:

“Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step. Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantages... why would users decline?”

RMS goes on to state that the user must be taught that these freedoms are advantageous to them. Microsoft may offer gratis copies of Windows to more users in the future if their share of the market plummets far enough (though without the other freedoms it would not be “free software”). We would be fools to assume that Microsoft could not make a technically superior product under a closed license. The value of free software is not always evident, but it must be understood if we expect our community to continue. In particular, we must explain its value to those within the business world because they are in the best position to corrupt it if they don’t value it.

Free software and business

Many free software proponents find it difficult to explain to businesses how a distributor of free software can make a profit. The first step is to ensure they understand that this is free as in freedom, not free as in gratis. I like to draw large pictures up on their whiteboards, if they have one, with Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Novell represented by big ovals. Show them how these companies make their money, stress the amount of competition seen in the environment. I always like to draw a line straight down the middle of the board; proprietary on one side and free software on the other. On the proprietary side I show a tiny oval called Apple and a huge one called Microsoft and on the free software side I draw the three companies aforementioned in equal sized ovals. I mark that side “Free”. I explain how all of these companies make money and compete for their business and then I draw a line dividing Apple and Microsoft. I draw another on the other side, this time right through Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Novell. I tell them that one of the advantages of free software is that, if the company they chose were to ever go out of business or, hopefully not, “screw them over”, they are guaranteed compatibility from one of the other distributors. You can’t have that freedom when using a proprietary system and are victim to that company’s whim.

Explaining how a free software distributor can make money

This is the beauty of freedom, they needn’t worry about one piece of software, that they rely on heavily, no longer being developed or sold. They may take it and develop it themselves. They can freely change that program or hire someone to do it for them, perhaps one of the original developers. They can put the software on every toaster, coffee maker, and printer in the company and they don’t ever have to worry about being sued over license arrangements because one of their employees decided to take a copy home and upload it through bittorrent. Start off with the stuff that they know, then work into telling them the real value of free software. I love to use examples, for instance, the road systems...

Start off with the stuff that they know, then work into telling them the real value of free software

Early on in the development of the automobile in the United States, American citizens would have been mortified if one or two companies had secured rights to the method with which roads were made in the country, charging large fees to simply access these roads. If the process by which the roads are made were kept secret, we would not have seen much improvement in the process and the only roads maintained would have been those most useful to the one or two companies and/or those paying off high dividends. All other roads would have been ignored and potholed, abused and unattended; doing plenty of damage to people’s cars. We can see this now with the PC industry. With free software we get perspectives on all needs from the most common software to the most niche applications.

Roads were quickly ramping-up high-speed transport by which business and economy could thrive and grow. The United States’ GNP surged because of this newest of avenues (excuse the pun). It became, in short order, an integral part of society. Software, now, is no different.

Is a free and open highway and road system, which any person or business may use freely, lacking merit for profit or business? No. Do we find it difficult to talk of the business advantages of a free road system—one with which any company could, with the proper training and safety measures, lay down asphalt for a profit? No. Then how could anyone label a socially conscience software movement “anti-free enterprise” or even feel uncomfortable about it? Is it because it gives us even more freedom since you don’t need a lot of money to make a large impact in software? Why should we feel the need to hide the fact that there is a philosophy behind this?

Free enterprise does not require closed business models and secrets, the transparency and peer review within the free software community is nothing to be ashamed of and should, in fact, be emulated across the board throughout the business world. We should be proud of this. Without the road systems the way they are, the United States would not have developed the way that it did. Software, as it is today, is an integral part of society—too important to be controlled by one company. It is irreversibly tied into our social, governmental, economic, and personal lives. When we are successful in replacing 99% of the proprietary software world, our descendants will look back and laugh at the concept of a world full of locked down, black-box software.

Software, as it is today, is an integral part of society—too important to be controlled by one company

There are many more great examples and illustrations to use, if you look hard enough.

Conclusion: What is at stake

Does the GPL protect us by itself? No, it does not. Free software can be taken away from us at any moment. There is no end to what the enemies of free software can do if they put enough money behind it. It takes diligent people within the community and within the business world to maintain this gift passed down to us. Will you be one of them and will you initiate others who will understand the true value of free software? If we don’t value our freedom in free software, we will pay in the most costly way possible, we will lose it.


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