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Last week I was at the NLJug J-Fall. This is a conference for Java developers organized in the name of the Dutch Java Users Group. One of the keynotes was given by Reginald Hutcherson from Sun. He talked about Sun and of course also about making Java and many related products open source. He explained why this was very good. Since we all love free software. This was obviously a comment with a humorous undertone. Yet there are still many people who truly believe open source is just free software. What is really free in this context? Like many others I am think that open source software is not free.

Read on to learn why

When we look at the overall picture of software, there are a number of levels of free. In my view we can distinguish the next 4 steps in “free” for open source:

  1. Free source code
  2. Free software
  3. Free documentation
  4. Free Support

How free is an open source product? You can do with the sources what you want? For example, create your own components and sell your components together with the open source product? To explain what you can do with the sources, an open source products is accompanied by a license. Some licenses feel like a free newspaper on the street.

“Sir, you want to try this newspaper for free?-Yeah, sure, give it to me-but you’ll need to register here for a trial subscription that without written termination is immediately converted into a permanent subscription.”

So a free paper comes with a subscription and some rules around this subscription. Like with this free newspaper, free open source software also comes with a license. The instructions might indicate that there are multiple licenses depending on your type of use. Important is that some licenses do not go together. Therefore I think free software becomes quite complex.

The more free an open source product is, the more important the community behind the open source product is. If only the source code is freely available, you’ll need to build the product yourself. Besides the source code is perhaps an installation manual available. In this situation the risk of problems is large and so the support of a community is very important. This support will focus largely be confined to a mailing list or an online forum. Fortunately, the most open source projects also provide “runnables”. In other words, working applications that can be executed immediately. If you’re lucky, you can also find free a user manual. Support is available via mailing lists and online forum.

The next step is free documentation. Again, a very active community is important. Without an active community there is often no proper documentation. Moreover, proper documentation results in better overall adoption of a product. Another reason for good documentation is a commercial interest for a company. The most common form of a commercial interest in an open source project, is a company that arises from the starter (s) that open source project. This company will assist in the use of the open source product. Now it’s interesting, especially as the last step in the free software is free support. This undermines the business model of the commercial business, since they often earn money by providing support. The balance between free and paid support is therefore difficult for a company that wants to make money and not loose the community. Therefore, online support is usually free. This is picked up by the community together with employees of the company that supports he open source project.

Free means that you can obtain the sources for free, not necessarily the use of the software. You still need someone who goes into the sources, learning about the software or someone who will understand the software so as to train others. You probably need to train people in using the software before they can become productive.

I believe that open source will never be really free. What does this mean for open source now? A disaster? Nope, with paid software it is no different. Then you must also train your people. Open source is not the same as free. If you take the words open source literally, it means that only that the source code is open or available. The “Open Source Initiative” has a definition that describes open source. The availability of the source is only one of the 10 points which open source must meet. The other points that are described, among other open source software should be able to pass on to others, provided that the license is included, the original writer gets recognition. Read the full 10 points on the following page: http://www.opensource.org/docs/osd. A license may call itself an open-source license only if it is approved by OSI. A long list of open-source licenses is available on the same website: http://www.opensource.org/licenses/alphabetical. When you have read the open source definition, you come to the conclusion that there is no talk of free software. There is only talk about the availability of open or free sources and what you can do with those sources.

Conclusion, open source projects tend to make their software available for free under a well known open source license. The software can be used for for free. You can ask for help for free in a forum. For onsite support you often have to pay. Because you can do with so much for free with open source software, open source will often be seen as free. I think however that the use of open source will never be completely free. You’ll always have to invest in learning about the software. You may have to hire expensive consultants for implementations. The main lesson learned that I can give is that making a choice for open source should never be based on the fact that it is “free”, this is not right. Opt for open source for the freedom that you get, the quality and particularly the community that is always willing to help.

One thought on “Open source as in free

  • November 19, 2008 at 11:07 am
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    Hey Jettro,

    Nice article. I agree with the fact that a common mistake made in Open Source is thinking that is free.

    Another mistake(in my opinion) is to automatically think that all your requirements are met when using Open Source software and that it requires no tweaking, adjusting or training. I have experienced this myself during my work with Open Source Products.

    A price you have to pay to work with Open Source is to find out how the product works(which in my opinion is fun). As you know “time = money” so in that case you can really say it’s not free ;)

    Regards, Rick.

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