February 27, 2004

The Business of Open Source Software

An Introduction to Open Source Software

Even a casual follower of technical news would have noticed a recent strengthening trend in mainstream press. There is an ever-increasing mention of terms like Open Source, Free Software, and Linux. Further investigation would reveal that, for some reason, this issue seems to divide the world into two camps: those that feel very strongly about it and those that don’t.

That part of humanity, which feels strongly about Open Source Software (OSS) and Free Software (FS), wouldn’t have much use for this article. However, for those of you who are in the other camp and possess a mild curiosity about this phenomenon, this article attempts to unravel a few terms and provide a few perspectives.

What exactly is this beast?

This section is best started with a clarification. There is not one beast here but several and vastly different beasts. However, for the purpose of simplicity, we will not allude further to this difference. Instead we will try to gain an overview of the philosophy of Free/Open Source software. Further information is, however, easily available. [1][2]

In the 1970s, the world was still young. At least the world of computers was. The computer then was the Digital PDP-10 and software was something you wrote to get work done. The source code of software was freely available to see, modify, reuse, or improve. The 1980s, however, saw the breakdown of this culture, and the rise of proprietary software.

Proprietary software is different from free software. Usage of proprietary is typically limited to usage of the executable only, without access to its source code. The rights of the users to attempt to modify the executable are severely curtailed. Further, compensation is required to be paid to the ‘owner’ of the proprietary software to gain limited rights to use the software. The rights of the customer to reuse or share the software are also curtailed according to the agreement signed for the purchase of the software. On the contrary, free software does not place such restrictions on reuse or sharing of software. Here, free does not mean without compensation, but rather means the freedom to choose to use software without restrictions. Further, the OSS software also distributes the source code of the software along with the executable, so that the user can read and modify it as he sees fit.

Returning to the story at hand, this change from the 70s to the 80s was not acceptable to a number of people. One such person was Richard Stallman. He was so irked by the closing up of the software community that he decided to do something about it. To ensure that the freedom to use software remains, he set up the GNU Foundation. The goal of the GNU foundation was to build and distribute components for a complete operating system according to the philosophy of having freedom to use software as seen fit.

In 1984, the GNU was set up. In 1985, its first product – the GNU Emacs was built and released to the world. In tune with the philosophy, the GNU baulked at the proposition of “copyrighting” their work. Instead they “copylefted” their software under what came to be known as the GNU Public License (GPL) [3]. Copyleft uses the copyright law, but flips it over to serve the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of a means of privatizing software, it becomes a means of keeping software free.

By the 1990s, work was going on in full steam and a number of components of the UNIX system were being rewritten from scratch and released under the GPL. However, for a complete system, there is one crucial component required to tie all of it together – the kernel. The GNU was working on a kernel called the Hurd, but the project was not delivering. And there could not be a complete ‘free’ system without a kernel.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a 21-year-old computer science student at the University of Helsinki, decided that his personal operating system, Minix, a Unix-look-alike operating system was not good enough. [4] He was pretty sure he could write something better. So in a very brave and foolish attempt he started to write his own. But in doing this he made an important decision, to involve other people. He took the help of a number of the news groups at that time, to ask for ideas and guidance. And from this sprang the kernel, which we now know as Linux. GNU/Linux became the complete “free” operating system that Richard Stallman and a number of others had been dreaming of.

So what does this mean to me?

No talk about OSS/FS is complete without talking about the other extreme, or at least the perceived extreme – Microsoft. Somewhere along the way, not without reason though, the fight for the freedom to use software has been morphed into the fight between Linus Torvalds and Microsoft (Bill Gates). To the media, of course, this is selling stuff, and it has done little to allay this misconception. However, the first step to understanding, using, and benefiting from OSS/FS starts at breaking the media stereotype of David vs. Goliath.

Free software is not about cost. Free software is about freedom, freedom to use, freedom to reuse, freedom to distribute, and freedom to change. If this results in a perceived low initial investment, then it has more to do with the economics of it, rather than it being the USP of free software.

Software is like other economic goods and is unlike other economic goods. It is like other economic goods because it needs effort and expertise to produce and serves an economic interest. It is unlike other economic goods as the marginal cost to produce additional copies is negligible. The returns on investment are much, much higher than other economic goods and reusability is much higher than any other investment. This leaves us with a peculiar scenario – an extremely useful economic good and very easy to reuse.

This gives rise to problems similar to the ones faced by the music and motion picture industry. But software is not art, and it can deliver monetary benefits. To protect such a ‘property’ the copyright law has been typically employed. Using the principles of IP to protect software like music, has led to a monopoly like situation. Accepting a proprietary software solution for a business process makes the business process monopolistically dependent on the software.

And monopoly increases prices, and that too significantly.

After the bubble burst on the great IT dream, the software industry is facing a significant over supply of resources, leading to low productivity. And this low productivity is being maintained by the monopolistic premium charged by software vendors. To state it differently – current software development, selling, deploying and administering process is grossly inefficient. This inefficiency is being fuelled by the proprietary nature of software. The bottom line is that the IT department budgets are taking the blame.

This is where OSS/FS plays a crucial role. By driving down prices of software, OSS/FS drives true productivity in the entire process of making and selling software. This productivity is what reflects as low prices for OSS/FS and is not an endemic nature of the software.

What can I do?

Understand the philosophy of OSS/FS. It is crucial to understand what freedom means because it will help you appreciate the true nature of software in general and free software in particular. Further it will help you no matter where you are to form realistic expectations of what to expect from OSS/FS.

If you run the IT department for a business, there is a tremendous cost savings for you. Free software is easier to maintain and gives a lower TCO. Free software contributors are a great source to snag amazing programmers from. Finally free software gives you a flexibility of choice, which is never possible on a proprietary platform.

If you are a programmer or a software maintainer, there is tremendous learning for you. You have knowledge beyond your wildest dreams in OSS/FS forums. OSS is a great way to read, obtain and reuse code snippets. FS gives to access to technologies never possible on the proprietary platform.

If you are an end user, OSS/FS is your source of productivity and flexibility. Recognize that OSS/FS is not about Windows versus Linux, but is about choice. When you make that investment into hardware or software, recognize that it is your right to demand more. And recognize that your hardware is capable of more, software is capable of more, and proprietary solutions are neither the highest nor the best benchmarks.

The road ahead

It is easy to talk about the great dream of free software ruling the earth. However, free software has its own, very obvious flaws. OSS/FS cannot be everywhere. OSS/FS cannot scale to build every need. But is a great way to recognize that software is not just another economic good. You can demand and get more out of your IT buck. And that freedom is your birthright.

[1] http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html
[2] http://www.gnu.org/gnu/thegnuproject.html
[3] http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html
[4] http://www.geocities.com/n_ravikiran/write003.htm

Document Changes
February, 27, 2004: First published version. This essay was written as a writing sample for an "Effective Business Writing" Course.

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