Talkin’ bout a freeware revolution

Is the open-source movement going to revolutionize the software economy? I believe so, but not the way some idealists paint it.

They behave as if the open-source and free software revolution is the dawn of a new world order in which programmers work entirely for the personal satisfaction of seeing others benefit from their work. In this future utopia, we all freely share our contributions as we tie-dye T-shirts and tiptoe through the daisies in our copious spare time.

The problem with this view is that it implies that money and personal satisfaction are mutually exclusive motives for programming. The worst extremists can make it sound as if anyone who holds a regular job has broken communion with the voodoo spirit of emacs. As propitiation, they have to sacrifice weekends with the family to code open source.

Well, I’ve got a news flash. Money and personal satisfaction aren’t mutually exclusive. Here’s an even bigger shock: All programmers want to get paid for their work. Every single one of them. What distinguishes one type of programmer from another is the currency in which they want to be paid. Some want to be paid in recognition. Others want personal satisfaction. Some even want (gasp) money.

Not even Richard Stallman, the high priest of free software, is immune. He may want all software and documentation to be free, but just try using the term “Linux” around Stallman without putting the free software moniker “GNU” in front of it. Stallman started GNU, and he demands his recognition dollars. And well he should (your position on GNU/Linux notwithstanding).

But here’s the kicker. Regardless of what they really want, most people end up needing the money whether or not they get recognition or satisfaction. Programming is like the fine arts. It is a field filled with grunts, con artists, and truly creative people all with a passion for programming. Almost all of them eventually discover that they have to pay the rent. And that usually means they either have to give up their passion, compromise it for the sake of an employer, pursue it in their spare time, or find a way to get paid real money for it.

Fortunately for some of the best programmers of free software, there is a way to get paid real money for writing open-source and free software. Some of the stars of the Linux programming community are now drawing salaries from vendors like Caldera, Red Hat and SuSE. Sounds like they work for a living, doesn’t it? But these folks should consider themselves extremely lucky. Though the market for open-source talent exists, it is still pretty small.

So if the open-source and free software movement is all about getting a good job, that isn’t much of a new economy, is it? There is one important difference, however. In the new economy, the vendor gives away the fruits of the programmer’s labour. What the vendor charges for is service, support, possibly a book or two, and the convenience of installing the software from a CD.

I’ve heard some people suggest that the CD will become irrelevant when there is enough Internet bandwidth to install a program over the ‘Net as easily as one could install it from a CD.

But if distributors are likely to be threatened by a faster Internet tomorrow, they’re much more likely to be threatened by software pre-loads today. There’s nothing stopping Dell from downloading a copy of Linux or FreeBSD and pre-loading it onto a million computers. But if you want to know the trick to understanding where the money will be made, ask yourself what happens when someone calls Dell for technical support.

Another factor that may contribute to a new economy is the advent of “free for noncommercial use” software. WordPerfect 8 for Linux and Star Office 5.0 for all platforms are free for noncommercial use. Just download’em, register’em and use’em. But once again, free for noncommercial use doesn’t eliminate the need for support, especially in a corporate environment, where there is no such thing as noncommercial use.

So, if the new economy is driven almost entirely by service and support, it would follow that companies will have to focus more on reliability and suitability of their software rather than features and glitz.

Gosh, if that’s the down side, the future is looking pretty darned good.

— IDG News Service