The Cost Savings of FOSS: Business Success for the Wrong Reason: Page 2

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Instead, the reason for the uneasiness lies in the emphasis. According to Asay, the new reality "is that we're past the 'purity stage'. We've spent ages trying to decide who was a real open-source company and who was not. [But] customers just want things that work."

In other words, customers are not interested in the idealism that created FOSS and continues to sustain it. They are only interested in practical results -- and the choice of words seems to be that the shift to this emphasis is desirable.

To this attitude, I can only respond, as Alec Guinness did in The Horse's Mouth, "It's not what I meant. Not the vision I had."

I haven't spent the last ten years encouraging those around me to use FOSS or the last five years writing about FOSS so that corporate customers can save money. I did these things because I believe that FOSS has the power to transform business and society by showing that cooperation has at least as much power as competition, and by adding a sense of social responsibility to everyday business. I didn't do them to help the system continue as it presently exists. If FOSS aids business, fine -- but that's a side effect, and not my main concern.

No matter what your perspective on FOSS, the emphasis on cost has something in it to concern you. If you are an open source advocate who values FOSS because it empowers people by producing better software that is available for everyone, you might object to the fact that no mention is being made about software quality.

If you a free software supporter whose goal is computer freedom -- greater control for all users -- then your response might be even stronger. No matter how cheap FOSS might be, some attention to quality seems necessary to keep customers minimally satisfied. But if cost is the main concern, then idealism loses to short-term pragmatism. Customers will use proprietary software like Acrobat Reader or Adobe Flash Player as readily as they will free software equivalents like Evince or Gnash. After all, each is free for the download.

But, by refusing to make a distinction between proprietary and free software, they are abandoning the hope of a better world in the long term in favor of business-as-usual.

As Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was recently reported as saying in Hungary, "I won't say no to more users, but of course if they only bought the thing to save them money then they have missed the main point."

I would go further and say that the same is true of a company. If a company views FOSS entirely as a way to keep its corporate fortunes alive, then it has also missed a chance to remake itself in ways that will make it more competitive in the future. I might even argue that it has ignored its moral obligations to pass the benefits of FOSS along, even though nothing in free licenses imposes such obligations.

FOSS and business as allies?

Where you stand on such matters depends very much on your perspective. After I published "The Microsoft-Novell Deal and Trust in Princes," in which I suggested that FOSS and business could be allies, but were not necessarily natural ones, Matthew Aslett criticized this view on the grounds that "open source is a business tactic, not a business model. Open source is a software development and/or distribution model that is enabled by a licensing tactic."

From this perspective, FOSS is a choice to be adopted or abandoned according to the fortunes of business. But the trouble is, for some of us -- possibly a dwindling minority -- FOSS is not a tactic, but a cause. Helping business is only of interest to us if it furthers our hopes for a better life for all computer users.

Very likely, such views sound deeply naive. But if using FOSS is reduced to a matter of expedience, then I might as well be using Windows -- or, because I value quality, a Mac.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Intel, Red Hat, FOSS

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