How to avoid the benefits of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS)

FLOSS offers many benefits oversoftware that has a sole proprietor and is funded by royalties.Examples of sole proprietor software are packages such as MicrosoftOffice where there is a single entity which either owns or isrelicensing the exclusive rights on the software, and thus is the soleentity which can provide many levels of software support.

While I recommend against this, it is possible to use FLOSS and yetreceive none of the benefits beyond lower ($0) royalty payments.Government departments seem to do this all the time, not wanting toaccept the advantages of FLOSS (misinterpreting software acquisitionpolicy? Ideologically predisposed to sole proprietor software? Offeryour thoughts in the comments…).

The two most common ways to avoid the benefits of FLOSS can be summarized by two acronyms: COTS and DIY.

COTS is an acronym for Commercial Off The Shelf. One problem withthis term is that people believe it is a synonym for sole proprietorsoftware.

FLOSS can be just as commercial as sole-proprietor software, withmany companies offering commercial FLOSS services. The main differenceis that sole proprietor software exists in a monopoly market where thatsole proprietor is able to dictate what types of third party supportcan exist, and what activities it wishes to retain a monopoly on.

In the case of FLOSS the licensing enables a free market of supportoptions. This is why I often say it is free as in free market, not freeas in free beer given the $0 royalty costs is the least significantadvantage. As with any other free market situation, this benefits theentire economy including users of this software as they are able toreceive better support for their money, as well as emerging competitorsto any incumbent supplier give it will be merit and not monopoly thatdetermines what firms will succeed.

The other problem with the term COTS is that “The Shelf” is quicklydisappearing for productivity software, with entertainment softwarebeing the most likely software to still be seen on retail shelves. Moreand more productivity software is being sold online, as a service, assite licenses, or in formats where there is no longer a box sitting ona retail shelf. This is true of both FLOSS and sole proprietorsoftware, both of which can come in a boxed set but are increasinglybeing acquired in other ways.

The term COTS appears to be being used as a synonym for“unmodified”. One of the advantages of FLOSS is that anyone in thevalue chain from the original authors, suppliers/distributors to theend users are legally enabled to make customizations to meet needs.This gives a project far more control than a sole proprietor situationwhere it is the sole proprietor, not anyone else, that determinespriorities for the evolution of the software. A project that is able toset their own priorities, and resource their own enhancements orbug/security fixes when warranted, will be far more successful.

Projects can also make use of “resource multiplication”. Byreleasing any modifications back to the ecosystem, it allows otherpeople to continue maintenance of features that are of benefit tomultiple organizations. This multiplies the resources applied to theproblem without any single organization having to fund all resources.

When modifications are kept in-house and not shared this means thatthese modifications need to be integrated with any software updates,creating ongoing internalized maintenance costs associated with thatmodification. There are some sole proprietor vendors which allow endusers to make private modifications, but not to share them. This forcedthe organization into internalizing these ongoing costs, making anymodifications — even when allowed — to be more costly in the long run.

When someone says they want to use FLOSS software as COTS they arereally meaning they wish to forgo this set of advantages, deliberatelymaking their project dependent on the priorities of third parties forany necessary enhancements and/or bug fixes.

On the flip side are people who confuse FLOSS with “Do It Yourself”(DIY) software. They may incorrectly believe that FLOSS is managed byvolunteers, and that if FLOSS is brought into a project then it is upto the project to provide any and all support for this software. WhileFLOSS enables users to make their own modifications, it also enables afull spectrum of commercial and non-commercial support options.

There are companies such as Sun/Oracle, RedHat and Canonical that provide commercial support for specific bundles of software. RedHat offers commercial support for what they call RedHat Enterprise Linuxwhich is a bundle of software they have put together that forms acomplete operating system. Canonical does the same with their owndistribution of Linux, and has a support center in Montreal.

While people think of Oracle as the sole proprietor of the Oracledatabase, they also have a long history of offering commercial supportfor FLOSS. The Oracle Application Server (OAS)is a commercially supported software bundle which includes FLOSS suchas Apache and Tomcat as well as some Oracle wrapping. Oracle haspurchased other companies including BEA WebLogic (whose managementtools for Apache and Tomcat is intended to replace OAS), and recentlySun (creators of the Java language, and project lead/commercial supporter for many other FLOSS projects such as

I live and work in Ottawa, and have recently become involved withweb-mapping software. I was excited to find that Ottawa is a hotbed ofactivity surrounding the Open Source Geospacial (OSGeo) stack of software. Ottawa is the headquarters of DM Solutions Groupwhich appears to be the leading vendor in this space. Even with thesetop support options in the Ottawa area, you will still find examplessuch as Canadian federal government projects in Ottawa that are usingOSGeo and other web mapping software that appear unaware of (orunwilling to make use of) the support resources available to them.

While I suggested that confusions around COTS and DIY are the “flipside” of each other, it is possible to combine these two where softwareis both unmodified and all support is presumed to be do-it-yourself.I’m not sure why anyone would ever want to do this, but I have seenthis. Normally you will only see one or the other where FLOSS istreated as if it were sole-proprietor software and all support(including modifications) is outsourced to an external company, orwhere any support (including modifications) are internalized.

I hope that by discussing these two set of confusions that they canbe avoided. FLOSS enables a full spectrum of support options, and thereis no reason why all options shouldn’t be exercised by makingappropriate use of internal and external resources.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant, policy coordinator for CLUE: Canada’s Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING), and host for Digital Copyright Canada.

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