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John Soat
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IT Confidential: Why Software, And Beer, Should Be Free

Free--as in free beer--is not an unfamiliar concept in software, and one perhaps worth revisiting

I've come to the conclusion that software should be free. And I mean really free--as in free beer. Or free advice.

I know there's a free software movement, one that advocates the unencumbered use of software code, but the folks behind it pull their punches. On its Web site, the Free Software Foundation defines free software this way: "'Free software' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech,' not as in 'free beer.'" See what I mean?

Two developments last week made me come to this conclusion. First (actually second, in chronological order), there was Oracle's acrimonious lawsuit against SAP. Oracle is accusing a small SAP support division of downloading patches, updates, and other software tools from its customer support site in order to beef up SAP's services and entice Oracle customers. To give the SAP guys the benefit of the doubt, my assumption would be this: They thought it was free.

"Free" is not an unfamiliar concept in the history of software, and that leads to the other significant development last week, a sad one: John Backus died. Backus, 82, was the originator of the Fortran computer programming language. Generally considered the first high-level language, Fortran was a lot easier to use than the machine code computer programmers had to wrestle with before Fortran came along. "Much of my work has come from being lazy," Backus was quoted as saying. The logic of that statement is breathtaking, and makes him one of my personal heroes.

Fortran is still being used today, 53 years after its inception. And why did Fortran become such a widespread standard? Because it was free--as in free beer. IBM gave away the Fortran compiler with every IBM 704 mainframe computer, which was how software was distributed in those days. Free.

It's the old "give away the razors to sell the razor blades" business model, which always struck me as a classic win-win situation, to mix my metaphors. Following that logic, automakers should consider giving away gasoline to help sell automobiles, which might help Detroit out of its malaise. Or a more accurate analogy might be this: Oil companies should give away cars to sell more oil. See, that's what I'm talking about!

If there's a single person most responsible for creating the software industry as we know it, it's Martin Goetz. Co-founder of Applied Data Research, Marty Goetz helped develop one of the first software "products," a program called AutoFlow. Goetz received the first software patent in 1968, and in 1969 ADR sued IBM for anti-competitive practices related to software, which contributed to IBM's "unbundling" in 1970--no longer including free software as part of the mainframe sale. Except, of course, for its operating systems.

That leads to Microsoft, the most famous software company in the world. Microsoft started out marketing a proprietary version of a free programming language, Basic, until the IBM PC operating system opportunity fell in its lap. What if IBM had approached PCs the way it did mainframes, and developed and bundled a (free) operating system with every machine? It would be a very different software industry today.

My advice is, let's make it all free, and we'll avoid messy situations like what's going on now between Oracle and SAP. And you know what they say about free advice--more often than not, it's worth the price. Which is my point exactly.

Got any advice for the software heavyweights? Send it, along with an industry tip, to, or phone 516-562-5326.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit John Soat's forum.

To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page.

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