Free as in speech

April 13, 2013 at 12:32 PMMichele Mottini

I don’t completely get the enthusiasm for open source software, to try to understand it better I had a look at the Web site of the Free Software Foundation. I found it…puzzling? objectionable? …crazy? Not sure what’s the right word.

Start with this:

The corporations behind proprietary software will often spy on your activities and restrict you from sharing with others.

The assumption seems to be that proprietary software is developed by (evil) Megacorp Inc and used by Jane Consumer or Joe Small Business. This is ridiculous: most software is developed by small companies and used by other companies – including large ones. Amongst the first 100 US corporation by revenue only two are software developers – Microsoft (37) and Oracle (82). I’d bet that for most line of business application the norm would be small(ish) software companies selling to much larger customers (it has always been the case with my own software business).

Then there is this:

The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Nice. Let’s go ahead and use this freedom – here is the list of the 100+ top-level directories containing the OpenOffice source code and here you are warned:

Let's be honest. The size, age and complexity of OpenOffice's C++ codebase makes coding a challenge. This is not a trivial codebase to learn.

Who can honestly say that access to these sources will allow Jane Consumer – or even Bob C++ Programmer – to ‘change it so it does …as you whish’?

Of course it is a different matter if the USER of the software is Megacorp Inc – that has the resources to actually do something with the sources: fix bugs, make improvements, adapt it. Think of Google or Facebook - big businesses that use a lot of software and sell advertisement: they surely benefitted from the availability of Linux, PHP, Python and so forth.

Aside: the free software definition apparently applies to all possible software, but – just as an example - would it really be a good thing if anyone was able to tinker with the software embedded in their cars? No mention of this nuances though.

Finally, there is this:

“Free software” does not mean “noncommercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important.

That is very true – there are a number of businesses based on distributing and supporting free software. But if the software itself is freely distributed these businesses would never be able to charge much – the marginal price will be the cost of distribution and support, disregarding development – and this will hurt software development companies (that – see above - are mostly small and mid-sized, not Megacorp Inc.). The free availability of Git allows GitHub to exists – but hurts Perforce and SourceGear.

Summary: free software – benefits the big at the expense of the small. And Jane Consumer, in the meantime, switched to an iPad.

Posted in: Opinion

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