As in development, so in business. Less than a decade ago, cooperation between companies was limited largely to developers working on the definition of international standards. The idea that cooperation was sometimes as an appropriate a response to rivals as take-no-prisoners competition barely existed.
Now, not only do thousands of developers from rival companies interact daily in free software projects, but their managers meet to protect everyone's mutual investment in free software via The Linux Foundation, or to talk about free software procurement in Hewlett-Packard's FOSSBazaar. Meanwhile, CEOs are attending meetings organized by The Olliance Group to discuss the unique problems of being a company with an open source business model. What was unthinkable a decade ago is now commonplace -- and all because free software was too much of an advantage to ignore.
Who would have thought that new companies would stop selling software, and start selling services and extras instead? While open source business models were dismissed in much the same terms as free software itself, companies from Red Hat and SugarCRM through to IBM and Sun Microsystems now draw untold billions from them.
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The same massive change has happened in customer relations, too. Not only has the Internet -- which was built by free software -- forced companies to develop two-way conversations with customers, but it was members of the free software community who first explained the implications of this new accessibility to the corporation in documents like
The fact that some executives falsely imagine that they are the first to think of exploiting free software idealism, or that others water down its philosophy in concepts such as crowdsourcing or non-free online applications hardly matters. The point is that free software ideas have become the norm in business, particularly in IT, and thousands in business are now doing what would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
All this influence is impressive in itself. Yet the greatest influence of free software lies elsewhere. Starting with the idea that free software was a necessary corollary of freedom of expression in a computerized society, the free software community has done more than any other group to publicize the social implications of technology, and to make its benefits accessible to all.