IT Employment

Why free software really isn't (and shouldn't be) free

In this guest post, DarkDuck says both Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and proprietary software require some financial investment, but there are definite advantages of choosing FOSS. Do you agree?
[Editor's note: This guest post, written by DarkDuck - the author and owner of the blog Linux notes from DarkDuck - is part of the "open mic" segment of the TechRepublic Out Loud blog. Other members are welcome to submit their posts as well.]

If you've looked into buying software licenses, you know that they can be expensive. Big Guns from Big Corporations charge a lot for their work - the work of their programmers, the marketing department, and so on.

Of course, there's plenty of free software available. Here are three types of free software you may consider:

  1. Shareware / Adware. I combine these two types into one, because basically, they're not truly "free." You pay for its use by having limited functionality, looking at ads, etc. The author of this software gets the money.
  2. Freeware. This is software written by somebody who does not want to open the source code. Despite the closed source code, the author doesn't forbid the free distribution and usage of the software.
  3. Open Source Software (OSS). Generally speaking, OSS is not necessary free. You can find examples in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. This operating system is Open Source, but you still should buy licenses. If you don't want to pay, you may find CentOS as an alternative, which is compiled from the same source code but is distributed for free.

The general difference between OSS and Freeware is that OSS is usually distributed under the GPL license, which binds everyone by obligation to pass all the rights to the community and distribute the source code free of charge with the software itself. Having the software code, you can check, verify, and make changes to it.

In this article, I will refer to free software as Free Open Source Software (FOSS). So, if you decide that you're fed up with license fees and want to switch to FOSS, does that mean you'll never have to pay for your IT costs? For individual usage, you're probably right. After all, you can usually find help online if you run across any problems or issues. The internet is full of FOSS-oriented resources, including blogs and forums.

However, the situation is different if you're seeking FOSS for a company. Time is often better spent doing business than digging through the Internet for the answers you need. So, in this case, you may require proper support operations. Depending on the size of the company or complexity of tasks, you may wish to hire your own specialist, outsource it, or find a combination of the two.

Besides everyday support, you'll also need help with the actual implementation of FOSS. If you're just starting up your business, you'll need to work out a concept of your software usage. For people already in business, it might be necessary to add a migration strategy to the scope, especially if preexisting software is in place. Even if software is free, you still need to implement, configure, run, and maintain it.

Ultimately, both FOSS and proprietary software require some financial investment. But remember, proprietary software is not yours, even after you initially shell out a lot of money for it. When a Big Company says you need an update because they no longer support your version, the only choice you have is to update the software. However, updated versions inevitably have higher system requirements, which often equate to additional investments in hardware.

On the other hand, FOSS is yours. Sure, it has its own life-cycle and some older versions are no longer supported - but generally speaking, there are still versions of FOSS on the market that can work on x486 PCs. Since they're (un)officially supported, they get fresh security updates and so on.

Do you have any x486 in your attic? How about a desire to put new soul in your ex-scrap? FOSS software is predominantly more efficient in resource usage, simply because it's open. If someone sees a place that can be improved, it will happen. You don't need to seek help from Big Company to make changes in the code.

Are you convinced? If you haven't already, when will you start your migration to FOSS?

About

Sonja Thompson has worked for TechRepublic since October of 1999. She is currently a Senior Editor and the host of the Smartphones and Tablets blogs.

30 comments
Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

The real reasons to use OSS, is peace of mind in the knowledge that its OPEN. Is there spyware in there? You can find out if you wish. Don't have the knowledge to check? Then you must pay someone who does. Likewise if you can't maintain it in house, you'll need to pay someone to do so. Open source software is as secure as you can make it Now let's talk support... how many of us have contacted Microsoft or any other vendor for training or major support of a non-license issue? What exactly do we think we're buying with the thought that a closed source offerer will somehow support the software quickly, transparently, and for free? Best case, you can have any two. Simply put, the software (source code) is free. The knowledge to use it is not. Someone has got to get paid for it, and personally I would prefer to put my dollars in the local economy by handling things in house or finding a consultant. Open source software supports the local economy. Now lets talk flexibility. We found an open source CRM which almost met our needs, but not quite. We modified it for match our needs perfectly, paying a talented programmer for his time. We did the same for firewall software and other offerings. The only two titles we have not modified in house are Open Office and Ubuntu 10.10. These fit our needs well and customization was not required. Open source software can be modified to fit the need, often with the author's help. The article mentions that some FOSS can run on a 486. This is true, but it misses the point. Some FOSS software uses a web interface which eliminates the need for a GUI. This frees up resources to the task at hand. More importantly, the granularity of *nix (whatever flavor you like) allows services to be turned off in the OS and even in the kernel. Finally, OSS does not have a "black box" approach that many closed source object oriented offerings have. This prevents bloat and version incompatibility. Open source software protects your IT investment. Bottom line: It works well. We use it. We support it in house or with consultants. There have been no issues other than needing to replace an aging Epson laser printer due to a driver issue. Our staff, including a 50 year old grandmother, adapted quickly with minimal learning curve, nearly overnight. I have not seen the issues purported by the opponents of open source, and at this point chalk it up to the coward's marketing ploy: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. If I have missed something, I'd like to talk about it, but bear in mind that theoretical and potential issues are trumped by the fact that we have deployed open source software across the entire organization. We have 3 windows machines for testing, and the rest of the machines from firewall and server to desktop and mobile run Linux in one form or another, and all software used is open source. It just works.

alfielee
alfielee

Buying the run-of-the-mill proprietary software, particularly Microsoft, Apple & Adobe, means financing the USA. Here in Oz we spend near enough to a billion dollars or more per year in software licensing, money that in general goes out of Australia. Much of this cost is in supporting that software. Consider that although GPL-based OSS needs updating & support, consider the cost to you in purchasing the software from a company within Australia that enables support, documentation & updates. The amount for updating is decided by you & that team, not a set arrangement that totals a large investment for a short future like the situation with Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, etc. The costs stay here in Oz & we see that money revolve around Oz about 5 times for each dollar spent as opposed to that dollar just saying farewell to Oz completely. Linux offers for most companies a means to change that situation & for every company that does it themselves offers an investment into Australia's future...

garethmcc
garethmcc

So many comments about the correct definition of FOSS. This article is meant to educate business users, not us geeks. They don't care about free beer/freedom, just whether it will reduce costs and/or increase productivity.

aaronangelle
aaronangelle

People take free software's as bee's falls on honey . I am true or not ?

david
david

all bugs included

kingkong88
kingkong88

By definition, free software cannot have a wide following: http://all-things-pure.blogspot.com/2009/07/q-why-does-linux-fail-because-it-is.html. Why do Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc etc make tons of money? Not because they are free. Why do customers pay tons of money to buy Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc etc? Because they are very expensive. These customers pay Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc etc to brainwash them to buy these expensive goods. This is what makes a functioning economy.

bjswm
bjswm

One of the problems of "Big Company" software is the internal costs of looking after your licenses. This can become a major headache and a considerable non-visible cost - with the dangers of a major lawsuit if you accidentally make a mistake. For a company wanting a support contract, those support costs may be equivalent for proprietary and FOSS. But this is simple in comparison. Going with FOSS removes this headache.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I am not familiar with putting an x in front of the 486. The chip was called an 80486. "The i486 was without the usual 80-prefix because of a court ruling that prohibited trademarking numbers (such as 80486). Later, with the introduction of the Pentium brand, Intel began branding its chips with words rather than numbers." x86 denotes a series of chip arcitectures that are compatible with a certain machine code set (assembly language). It was an Intel naming scheme that they don't use anymore. AMD makes chips that will also run x86 code. The x is a variable: 8086 80286 80386 80486 80586 (

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

just before the english pulled his guts out. FREEDOM FREEBEER, might have been funny but like your article inaccurate....

tom
tom

I judge an application on iits implemented, functioning cost, not how "free" it is! Regardless of the application chosen, it's going to need support so costs of support are continuing and once past initial implementation and training all amounts to about the same cost. But, when I compare a $1,000 application to a "free" application under one of the several licenses, there is immediately a cost savings for every seat licensed. THAT can be a huge savings! The fact that I can download the very same application onto my home computer for no cost at all, is beneficial to any job I may take where it's used and training/learning curves do not all have to happen "on the job". That benefits everyone. Of course, there should always also be an eye to the future. Some really great, useful applications have been abandoned where there is no official support available except for some ad-hoc user groups, sometimes that's OK but more often it means you are permanently stuck with whatever bugs & featues it has forever. Notobjects, to mention only one of several, seems to have done this. It looks like infighting simply caused some projects with good reputations and and a good installed base just floundered and there it is; a good software that'll never get any better and won't get any bug fixes. They just stranded their users without notice and began completely ignoring all communications regarding the projects. But they'll still sell it, leaving the poor purchaser holding the proverbial bag.

sabreeblackmon
sabreeblackmon

I'm a huge supporter of the open source community, and I push for open source solutions within my company when it deems appropriate - but sometimes it's not. While we may use Debian as a base OS for some of our hardware appliances, we've paid thousands of dollars for a commercial task management and build system. Why? Because we need a zero downtime system that has some sort of real time support. Granted, we could have implement a similar system using only FOSS software but : - The time it takes to implement a system still has to be added in to the total costs. - The system has to be documented well enough so that new comers to the system can administer it. Custom systems developed with FOSS can get so complex that companies end up having to scrap it and start over again because of a personnel change. - The time spent researching solutions to bugs/problems also has to be accessed. On the flip-side, the "support" we sometimes get from paid support packages is usually never worth the huge costs. Either way, it takes a lot of thought and there's never a clear answer. OSS solutions that also have commercial support is often the best middle ground, and I think companies like Canonical will continue to do well.

Jaqui
Jaqui

go reread the Free Software Foundation's definition of Free Software it DOES NOT mean cash, it means FREEDOM. then read your own article. your core premise that cash is what the free in free software means makes the article completely off base. Free as in Freedom

Bret Waldow
Bret Waldow

This is ignorant. "Open Source" means you can read the source code, but doesn't mean you may use it, change it. Microsoft has released several "Open Source" licenses that prevent any use of their code. If we say you are free, it doesn't mean we can have you for no money as a slave - it means you can't be locked up. YOU are free. Free Software is software that can't be locked up, can't be denied to you. Freedom is not money. Get this straight in your heads. As the author of code, I naturally own it. You can't copy it and put your name on it, as you didn't write it. But I can decide to give you privileges to copy it, and on my terms. It's mine, I wrote it, and I can decide who else gets it. This is "Copy Right". This naturally belongs to the author. The privileges I (may) choose to grant are "a license". I set the terms - take them or leave them. Copyright is heavily enforced, and rightly so. Free Software is a social movement - releasing software with a license that requires that you give any improvements you make back to the community you got the software from. If you don't want to do that, write you own with your own effort and you can do as you like. Free Software is about giving a community software that can't be taken away from them. Open Source is quite different. And no, freedom is not about money.

peter_erskine
peter_erskine

Free software really is free, in every sense. There are numerous powerful apps that only take a few minutes to obtain and set up, and "just work". My employer is benefitting from many. Some, like enterprise monitoring, will save the company a massive amount of downtime, aggravation and inefficiency and therefore are not only free, but financially way into profit territory.

MrBeck
MrBeck

I have quite a lot of progs and scripts that I wrote to make things easier for me to manage the computers here at home. Who do I pay? And why is "freeware" any different?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The thrust of the article is that FOSS isn't free as in costs nothing, but unfortunately it didn't address it correctly. One of the key complaints made by those unfamiliar with the definitions, is that the software doesn't do what they want, yet they never asked, never contributed, and never paid, ie they wanted it for free.... So the true definition of FOSS should be the core of the post. Nothing to do with geek, everything to do with willful ignorance.

garethmcc
garethmcc

People licence software under GPL in order to allow people to get it for free. The more the merrier. I am true or not?

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Just like the stuff you pay for, only not in bulk packaging. Have a look at the bug count for seven (let's be fair, leave Vista out of this) and then go to Ubuntu's bugtrack (limit the search for OS entries only since Linux bundles a lot of software). Now we are comparing apples to apples. The result? Check it yourself and see. I will not influence you by telling you where to get your data or anything else that could be suspect, but please do the math! The difference is more than TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE! I refuse to pay for failure and shoddy workmanship in anything else, why must I accept it in software when there's an alternative? I don't.

garethmcc
garethmcc

Get yourself any paid for software and there will be bugs.

garethmcc
garethmcc

If an OSS project is abandoned at least you have the ability to choose to fix bugs yourself. If a proprietary application is abandoned that is closed, you have no choice at all but to find an alternative. And there have been many, many proprietary, closed applications that have been abandoned.

kingkong88
kingkong88

I agree with those definitions. But I hazard a guess that 50% of the people don't. But it also follows that using Free Software as a mechanism to squeeze as much money out of the user is also legitimate.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Sure, the purchase cost is $0.00, but there are always support costs. You could also stop thinking in terms of money. Using GPL-licensed software incurs non-financial obligations on the user. If you read the license, some of those obligations are as strict as anything MS, Autodesk, or Adobe ever dreamed up.

seanferd
seanferd

So you paid there. Maybe you stepped past the blazing point of enlightenment delivered here because it is so overwhelmingly obvious that no one really needs to consciously consider it. You know, since the same is required of any software (only you cannot alter non- open source code). Yet free (no cost) software is still free. Like a free (donated to you) lawnmower. It will cost money and time for gasoline and maintenance? No kidding. Will it cost time and money to re-engineer the lawnmower to do something new? Sure. The more significant outlay in the enterprise is for more expensive admins when running open-source OS and software, which perhaps a gung-ho and clueless non-technical C-level officer might need to consider before moving an entire infrastructure from Windows to BSD or something.

nickdangerthirdi
nickdangerthirdi

programs and scripts you wrote yourself are your own intellectual property, what the GPL states is if you make changes to the source code of someone else project, you should offer those changes up to the community, you arent required too however, its just considered fair play in the FOSS world....

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It's a pretty safe basic test but your ignoring relevant variables. It might be worth reading Chad's article on why just counting bugs provides no relevant information. First, your suggesting one compare the actual Ubuntu bug tracker to reported Win7 bug counts. This would be balanced if you compared ubuntu bug tracker to Win7 bug tracker; assuming you can get access to Microsoft's actual bug tracker. Which brings us to reporting; does Microsoft publicly disclose all bugs, even those found internally? (the answer is no, they recently admitted to fixing bugs without public notice) Are MS developers and community members using the same bug tracking system? I'm pretty sure Canonical developers and the foss community are using the same bug tracker; you'll see both publicly and privately found bugs on the list. When you can provide actual bug counts for all major platforms, we can talk further. What are the severity levels of bugs in Ubuntu's tracker versus the Win7 bug count. Ten bugs fo which two are critical is very different from ten bugs of which eight are critical. I'll take a thousand bugs in ubuntu's tracker if the percentage of exploitable bugs is lower than that of the alternative option. In both cases, you can purchase support directly from the parent company; Microsoft or Canonical. Who is more interested in working closely with you to resolve bugs and what costs where involved in the initial service contract and any additional expenses incurred beyond it?

George7777
George7777

Yea right, and everybody knows that it costs more to support FOSS software because -- wait for it -- Microsoft told us so. Yes, they commissioned the study that appeared in ZDNET a couple of years ago and SURPRISE it said exactly what they wanted it to say. I admin both Microsoft and FOSS systems for multiple companies. I charge less for the FOSS systems because they are easier to set up and require less of my time to keep them up. When patches/upgrades come in for a FOSS system, I don't have to worry about the other software running on that system. They will work. That is NOT so on Microsoft systems. Six to eight times a year, MS patches will come in that crash some company critical software that will only run on MS systems. That means that automatic updates can not be turned on and each patch needs to be individually installed, tested and backed out when problems occur. I won't even go into the time and effort it takes to keep all systems virus/malware free, but it sure is a LOT more time for Microsoft systems. So yea, tote the party line about FOSS being more expensive, but those who are converting to FOSS are saving a ton of money both initially and over the long haul.

davubu
davubu

I too fly by the seat of my pants. I also fly by the whim of many bosses who choose various licensed products. I haven't been very impressed with any of the products (Windows and other proprietary products) we've had to implement. I advise them but finally swallow my opinion and go with the flow. When I have a choice I choose FOSS - on the desktop and server. Software is software; buggy with no guarantee. But on the FOSS side I know that developers (thank you) are working to make it (Debian and other products) work as best they can. The developers eat their dogfood so to speak. It all boils down to what are you (decide) and your staff trained to support. If you tool up to manage FOSS you can be very successful. You will still be busy. If you choose to run Windows, you need to tool up for those bumps. Personally, I avoid the Windows rollercoaster whenever possible. I'm happy - very happy - with the ride I'm on. It works!

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Good points all. Between the question of whether individually reported bugs provide valid info and the difference in availability and reporting, I suspect we still won't be comparing apples to apples. Personally, I just go by seat of the pants and functionality, and because of that we became an open source shop a couple of years ago.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Re-read his post. All he says is that there are always support costs. "I admin both Microsoft and FOSS systems for multiple companies. I charge less for the FOSS systems ..." By charging for FOSS support, you confirmed his point.