March 13, 2006

Free-dumb, Free software, and free beer!

So... was open source a mistake?

Has anyone ever been more fundamentally wrong than Eric Raymond, when he wrote in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" almost nine years ago, that open source is "better quality"? How the heck do we know that? Unfortunately, we don't. We don't know that open source is inherently better - or worse - than its proprietary cousins. Nor do we know if open source software is inherently more secure. We don't know that the TCO of open source software is any lower than proprietary versions.

But if we look at what's actually happening out in the IT "wild", we can see what open source does actually give customers that adopt it - freedom. The freedom to try it a little bit without having to agree to any terms (GPL and other licenses notwithstanding). The freedom to download it whenever you want without talking to some sales dork first. The freedom to fire your vendor and hire someone else to manage and maintain the software and your deployment. Nowhere in this equation do we get customers adopting "better software, faster" or better security fixes and patches, or lower TCO. We see customers adopting more open source software because it's easy, it's quick, it works (sometimes), and it's possible to change course later if things don't work out. Open source is the perfect technology for IT grunts with a fear of commitment.

About eight years ago, a few smart people got together and decided that the term "free software" didn't cut it. Ironically, the term they chose, "open source", seems to de-emphasize the very thing responsible for its success: freedom. When the open source people cut out the term free software, they were expressing a few fears: fear of confusion in the marketplace, fear of misplaced value (of course it doesn't work - you get what you pay for...), and of course, fear of St. Ignutious himself. In hindsight, perhaps we should consider the possibility that adopting the term "open source" is more of an inhibitor to free software than an enabler.


X-Nc said...

Well, that's one point of view. You're not correct in your assumptions about the quality and value of the software but you're not wrong in asking the questions whether this line of thinking is really true.

The bottom line about this software being easy to use and experiment with is one of the big reasons it's being adopted by so many so quickly. But your point about the name "Open Source" is wrong. It is much better than "Free Software." However, neither one is really right. What we have is "Software Libre," liberated software. But that's not going to work because it's not English words. We're all kinda stuck in that what we have and what we do is not easy to sum up in two or three words.

John Mark said...

Indeed, summing up anything in two or three words will invariably leave out something.

My point about quality and value are simply that we cannot prove it one way or the other. Without quantifiable evidence, can we really say that these qualities are driving open source adoption? I still say it's freedom, because it's the one thing we can hang our hat on with certainty.

TCO studies are extremely fudgy and, IMHO, not worth the bytes they take up on the web.