Thoughts on Free Software

I’ve had a fascinating exchange of emails recently with a South African software author who has taken his project open source – GPL in fact – and moved his business model to supporting it. Here are some of my thoughts, as provoked by his comments…

I simply do not get excited by Operating systems. It would suit me down to the ground if Microsoft would Open Source Windows and we could end this and just get on with it.

I think very few people should get excited about operating systems. Most people should see it in the same way as when you pick up the telephone – you get dial tone and you can use it.

Usability should ultimately be the most important factor in IT – are you more productive in the actual job you are doing? Or if you threw the computer out the window and used pencil and paper, would you be more productive? (Some time I wonder…)

Then, I see usability incorporating freedom. While some would restrict what you may do with their software (“Here’s a hammer. You may knock nails into the wall, but you may not fix your car’s engine with it”…) others go out of their way to ensure certain freedoms, like the Free Software Foundation and Richard Stallman.

We have a choice, ranging from completely proprietary to completely Free Software. The software market is tending toward zero cost and increasing freedom. This applies to the whole software stack – applications, utilities, operating system – oh, and web services too.

In some cases, I think the best approach is to look at IT, application by application, and select which app, proprietary or open or Free, suits their needs. The more usable, the less skills required. The lower the cost, the less risk in trying it and the more freedom in an economic sense. The more Free, the less dependency on a particular vendor.

When you have replaced all your desktop applications with Free Software, it almost doesn’t matter what operating system runs beneath – then you can switch from a pure cost perspective.

In other cases, people prefer to evaluate the entire software stack and make a more strategic choice.

The result of all this is an increasing amount of choice. Linux is the poster child of Free Software, but it is by no means the only operating system kernel available on which to run all the rest of the desktop or server environment – there’s FreeBSD and a host of others. Ditto for desktop environment, web server, office suite, web browser, etc.

This diversity is a good thing, and if Windows were open sourced, I for one would cheer – but continue to use Linux. My reasons include the level of technical understanding and control I have over the software, and my perceptions of reliability, security, adaptability etc.

I see Ubuntu as an opportunity – not as a crusade.

Of course. Some do see Free Software and Open Source as a crusade, and to some extent it hurts adoption within business, where the bottom line reigns supreme. (I think these people have made such significant contributions that they are very necessary – but not the best people to “sell” to business…)

I think the “Do what I love, love what I do” thing is very prevalent in Open Source since people can more easily contribute and hence feel some degree of ownership. It can become a fine line between passion and crusading.

I don’t mind erring on the side of crusading, but I certainly see Ubuntu as an opportunity, especially in South Africa and developing countries, for so many people.

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