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3/15/2004
11:35 AM
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The Business Argument For Open Source

Open source is neither anti-American nor-anti-business. It's about giving users freedom to choose when to upgrade or change software platforms.

As I was doing my billing recently, I remarked to my boss that I always feel bad billing for services I enjoy doing. "Sure," he replied, "and wouldn't it be great if everyone chipped in to help pay your mortgage and feed your kids? Oh, wait. That's called communism." He's right, and it's a sobering context in which to consider open source.

If we follow my boss's line of thinking, open source, or "free software," might be considered communism. But to business and IT managers, open source isn't about code we don't have to pay for. In this case, free means freedom, as in the freedom to choose and use software as we wish, with no proprietary barriers.

Look at it this way: We've been on a product-upgrade treadmill for the past decade, and we've learned that the lack of choice about when to stop upgrading some products can be costly. If one company controls the source code and doesn't let others patch and update as they see fit, we consumers are forced to upgrade--no freedom there. Open source, on the other hand, lets financial managers control the timing of their cash outflows. Given the financial principle of the "time value" of money (the same amount of money is worth more now than it is later), the freedom to upgrade when and if we want can contribute to successful financial management. Sounds like capitalism to me. When Red Hat announced it would discontinue its old Linux line late last year, Progeny saw an opportunity. Its Transition Service (transition.progeny.com/) issues annual software updates for $5 per user. In contrast, after Microsoft's Windows 98 end-of-life announcement, a business with 300 desktops would have had to dole out $60,000 to upgrade; 5,000 seats, $795,000. The fact that Microsoft recanted its decision doesn't put money back in the coffers of the companies that believed Windows 98 was dead and unsupportable. Conscientious managers didn't have a choice at the time--by not upgrading, they'd have left themselves at risk to viruses and other security breaches that could have resulted in even more costly scenarios.

In agriculture, any monoculture (a one-species environment) invites disaster--the Irish potato famine, for example, resulted in more than 1 million deaths. In software, any monoculture--Microsoft's virtual OS monopoly, for instance--also courts disaster, according to Bruce Schneier, Dan Geer and other cybersecurity experts. They also claim, in a report titled "CyberInsecurity: The Cost of Monopoly" (www.ccianet.org/papers/cyberinsecurity.pdf), that tight proprietary software integration is detrimental to security: Lock-in requires complexity, and security and complexity are inversely proportional. If they're right--and I think they are--companies using open-source software have the advantage over those locked into proprietary software.

Is It Anti-American?

Open source at its core was never about preventing people from making a living. I asked Eric Raymond, spiritual leader of the open-source movement, whether he was disgruntled that others were making money off his code. "If I hadn't been willing to deal with the possibility of others selling my software," he said, "I never would have written it in the first place." Those who embrace open source are enthusiastic about it being successful in the real-world market--the capitalist market.

SCO has argued that open-source supporters are hell-bent on putting for-profit companies out of business. Nonsense! (For more, see Rob Preston's column, "The Linux/SCO Controversy,".) What ails SCO and other proprietary software vendors is nothing more than a changing business environment. Wake up to the real world, folks. Would you prefer that the government legislate a ban on open source so businesses don't have to deal with change? Or perhaps you'd like the government to subsidize businesses "victimized" by open source. Oh, wait. That's called communism.

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