Will the economic downturn mean a free software upturn?

So here we are, entering another year -- and no doubt at some point during this year, more than one person will declare it the "year of the Linux desktop". Of course it won't happen and those who consider themselves free software opponents will soon let us know. Some things will never change. That said, is there any reason to suspect it might be different this year? Is it possible that the current economic climate is better placed to generate a significant growth in free desktops? Can the cloud of economic gloom have a silver lining for free software?

It's not about the money -- but it does matter

Most sensible free software people realise that cost is not the key factor with free software -- it's freedom. However as that very same freedom allows the software to be distributed through very cost-effective channels and methods, money is certainly a consideration made by many. For the often minimal cost of a download -- or a copied CD -- you can install some free software on as many machines as you like. If the minimal cost of acquiring free software weren't a factor at all, would there be as concerted an argument against it by proprietary companies? In other news, financial commentators (and numerous bloggers with varying fiscal expertise) seem to be falling over themselves to tell us that we're in for a rough ride on the 2009 financial roller-coaster ("Where were they six months ago?" we might well ask). The host of a TV show on New Year's Eve in the UK asked various "famous" people in the audience what their predictions were for 2009. They ranged from music, TV and film artists to business people and comedians. Almost without exception the reply was that we'd all have to try and survive and then move onto better times in 2010. Nobody is predicting a jolly ride this year. So, as people around the world look toward a year (at least) of paying more attention to the pennies, is there a case to be made for moving to software which seems to offer a lower fiscal overhead?

The answer -- as regular readers will expect from me -- is yes... and no. Certainly I think there's a case to be made that as more people look to reduce costs, software licences could (should?) be something they look at. I'll not hide the fact that a number of people and organisations I help tend to look at the bottom line first (but it should be said not only at bottom line). However I'm not convinced that a sudden increase in attention to bank balances will drive people to free software. For a start I doubt whether the proprietary companies will just sit there and leave their prices alone. I expect to see a lot of promotions and time-limited offers landing on my doorstep regarding software costs this year. Margins will be trimmed and overheads cut as vendors seeks to convince me (and you) that not buying that software will cost me in the long run.

I know of people already migrating from Microsoft Office to Google Docs

Aside from that I imagine a lot of people will -- having already invested in their software -- seek to ride out the storm with their current software. Others may seek to replace their desktop software with online -- but not necessarily free -- equivalents. I know of people already migrating from Microsoft Office to Google Docs. All of this means that a drop in global or national economic fortune does necessarily lead to a rise in free software usage.

What about the "yes" bit?

Despite what I've said above, I fully expect to see an increase in free software desktops this year. A significant one? I don't know because it's just so difficult to count them. I do expect the product names to become more frequently heard: Ubuntu, "Linux", "OpenOffice", Firefox, Thunderbird. By the end of this year I'm expecting my friends who consider themselves to have a "finger on the pulse" to mention to me about free software instead of the other way around. You'll have noted from the list of names that I am not limiting free software desktops to those running a free software operating system. Some may suggest this is not fair as "free desktops" generally means free operating systems, which generally means GNU/Linux. My reasoning here is that a proprietary desktop running free software is better than one running entirely proprietary software, and is certainly a good enough start to count in my book. Of course it depends on how much free software is being and used and how but think of it as more of a way-point than a final destination. Of course it will definitely count if it leads to a change in the way software is thought of by the user.

Aside from that reasoning, I also suspect that desktops (and laptops, net-books etc.) running a free operating systems would have increased this year anyway. It seems to have been heading that way despite any economic downturn. Key hardware vendors like Dell and HP were offering machines running GNU/Linux in the high street and for the first time people were buying "computers" without concern for the "Designed for Windows" label. I see no reason why a change in economic circumstances would alter that trend. There's a possibility that fewer people will buy net-books as just another gadget, but maybe more people will buy them as a portable computer instead. Again I have acquaintances who having tried a friend's GNU/Linux powered net-book are looking to buy one to replace their not-so-old Windows-powered laptop (bought as a portable desktop). This is simply because the device meets their needs in a handier size. The choice of software was less important until they tried an equivalent Windows one in a computer store.

A prediction

So no, I am not going to say 2009 is or will be "the year of the Linux desktop" - I do not believe any such period will ever exist. I am saying that the economic downturn could prove very useful for free software and may provide quite a few opportunities for free software vendors and consultants. In short I wouldn't be surprised at all if free software came out of 2009 much healthier than it entered it.

Perhaps I'm a bit late but happy 2009.


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