An introduction to Software Freedom

Why is software so expensive? It’s a very interesting question. Programmers tend to be rather costly talent (not to mention generally a bit strange), which explains why creating a software program is an expensive undertaking. But once a software program has been created, it costs almost nothing to produce another copy; or another million.

So one might conclude that software created for use by a single organization would be very costly, but that used by many would be almost free. On the latter point one would be mistaken; the retail price of, for example, Adobe Photoshop is almost a thousand dollars (BDS $), which helps explain the huge profit margins of traditional software manufacturers.

When the need to upgrade software every couple of years is taken into account, the reason software is such a large expense for businesses becomes clear. Software publishers know that once they have a client using their systems, they’re unlikely to stop. The money keeps flowing onto their balance sheets.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. For the last several years a quite, grass-roots revolution has been taking place which offers software consumers a way out of the “upgrade treadmill”. Software published under an Open Source Software (OSS) license reverses the restrictions normally seen in commercial or Closed Source Software (CSS) licenses.

The some key points in an OSS license is the source code must be made available to the end user and the user is given the right to modify the software as they wish. The user is also allowed to use as many copies of the software in any way they choose, and for as long as they desire.

Imagine! Instead of an CSS license where most of the users rights are taken away by way of the End User License Agreement (EULA), OSS gives additional rights to the user. Oh, and the software is free!

When business people are first presented with this idea, the usual reaction is that it can’t be true. Or that it doesn’t work. Or you get what you pay for, so it can’t be any good. After all, if there isn’t a profit motive, why would anyone spend time writing software. The reasons will be examined in detail in future articles.

But the truth is OSS does work, and in many cases is more stable and secure than commercial software offerings. An example is Linux, a Unix work-alike which is taking over the server environment and is already used on as many desktops as is the Apple Mac. Another example is Apache, a web-server (available for both Linux/Unix and Windows) which is three times as popular as Microsoft’s ISS server.

For consumers of software, OSS can be a huge competitive advantage. Not only the cost savings, but the simple stability, security and flexibility of the solutions ensures the users can get on with their business, rather than constantly maintain and upgrade their systems.

As an example, at Wamco Data Management, we have over 120 Linux boxen deployed throughout our network, acting as routers, firewalls, servers and desktops. Our total expenditure for software for these systems? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nadda.

But this is not the reason we use Linux. Instead, it is the simple fact that we can trust it to do its job. Forever. We don’t have to reboot the systems except to change hardware, and Linux is immune from the Windows worm of the week. In fact, we often end up using Linux’s advanced firewalling ability to protect our clients’ Windows machines from infection.

Hopefully this short introduction has generated some interest in the advantages Open Source Software offers. In future articles we will be examining in more detail how and why OSS is becoming so popular, case studies on OSS deployments, and some examples of how an organization can begin using OSS to their advantage.

Additionally, we’ll look at ways the traditional Closed Source vendors lock in their customers, and how the cycle can be broken. With software being so mission critical in today’s business, it’s simply prudent risk management to have it under the organization’s control, rather than being at the mercy of some foreign company’s need for profit.

Never published in a newspaper…