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Robert Pogson [opinions]

The Future is Now for Some.

There are about 1000 million PCs on the planet, most running that other OS. For the folks running free software, the future is now. They can run on almost anything. They can shift hardware/software platforms easily. They can increase the number of seats easily. The 900+ million not running free software are now or will soon be a burden to their owners: mal-ware, forced upgrades, high life-cycle costs and bloat.

2007/2008 is a special time that will be remembered for the price of a PC plunging because of competition in the hardware market and new technology. The price of entry plunged, too, except for those using that other OS and the barnacles clinging to its hull. There are thousands of millions of people on the planet with no access to a PC who soon will have at these prices. The cost of acquisition of non-free software is huge at these prices. It can no longer be hidden as it could in a $1000 PC.

This emerging market is not locked-in and can readily adopt free software. Thus, the purveyors of non-free software cannot readily expand. They can, however, raise prices as necessary to maintain their standard of living because many of their customers are truly locked-in. Consumers call an icon representing a non-free browser "the internet". Businesses know it will cost huge investments to retrieve their data from the tentacles of non-free software. Even though some see the mistake they made long ago in adopting non-free software, change is so difficult for them that they will keep on paying and being abused by their suppliers.

Thus, non-free software will be around a long time, just not in all markets. It will become a niche market for the very rich and short-sighted.

As an example, consider Munich. They made a public commitment to migrate to free software, were hounded in the media and in political circles, and after many trials and years still have not completed the migration. They knew how deeply locked-in they were but still had the tenacity to continue. They made a lot of mistakes becoming that deep in the hole, and they made some mistakes getting out. Many large organizations are just as deeply locked-in and cannot present a good business argument for migration in the near term while stock-holders rate them on their latest quarter.

On the other hand, a small business acquiring its first computer needs a browser, a spreadsheet, a web server, a database and a word-processor to benefit instantly from adopting free software. They have few costs in doing so because they are going from paper to something much more efficient. Free software works in such a case extremely well. The return on investment is huge. The break-even point could be less than one year. The ability to network can help the business grow rapidly.

These market conditions will cause rapid growth of free software from now on but that other OS and non-free software will not go quickly. It could be 5 years until free software is at 50% of seats. It could be 10 years until the markets in software are truly competitive, where software is chosen on merit and not on the mistakes of the past.

It is a great time to be involved with free software. China, Brazil, India, and Russia are all on fire for free software while the market for that other OS and non-free software is growing slowly. At these prices, most of the world will be able to choose free software on the first PC or on the next one. It appears the annual growth rate of GNU/Linux on clients on the web is up to 50% while that other OS is in decline. At this rate free software could be the OS on 100 million PCs next year. We are probably far above that with FireFox and already.

Web statistics like show this rapid growth but report tiny numbers because the hot markets for GNU/Linux are under-reported (China 2%, US 30% even though they have similar number of browsers).

The makers of the new tiny notebooks are forecasting tens of millions of sales next year. ASUS kept selling out the eee PC and now there are many imitators. Similar devices are being used as thin client terminals in business, education, government and financial services with growth several times larger than the PC. GNU/Linux and free software can fit rapidly into any new developments while that other OS is limited by the imagination of the few who control it and the inevitable march of Moore's Law and corollaries.


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