Open Systems, Free Software, and Why?

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My primary business is as an Open Systems Internet Consultant, and as part of that business I offer solutions based on what is called Open Source Software or Free Software. The concept of Free Software is often a bit confusing as there are multiple meanings of the word free, and the concept is quite different than how the current mainstream computer industry works.

To quote the Free Software Foundation from their document "What is Free Software?" <> :

``Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ``free speech'', not ``free beer.''

``Free software'' refers to the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to three levels of freedom:

  • The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can share with your neighbor.
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Due to the confusion with the multiple meanings of the world "free", and because the commercial software support world is nervous about the use of the word "free" because of the "no money" connotations, many people have switched exclusively to using the term Open Source. I tend to use both terms depending on the audience, but believe the term "freedom" implied in "free software" conveys the most correct meaning.

This model of computer software has many advantages both for the users of computers, and people who work in the computer or software industry such as myself.

  • Users only need to pay for what they are getting. If they do not need any technical support, training, or any enhancements to the current state of the software, there is no additional cost to them.

  • Users are encouraged to share knowledge and software with their Family, Friends, co-workers and clients and build better relationships with these people while at the same time improving access and knowledge relating to computing.

    Note: This freedom is very different from illegal copying (often incorrectly termed: software piracy). I believe that the only time when deliberately breaking the law is valid is as a form of civil disobedience. In the case of computer software there is a clear alternative and nobody can claim they are forced to use proprietary software. If you oppose the price and loss of freedoms attached to the use of proprietary software, the valid course of action is to switch to Free Software. With this in mind I make it a general rule to not support computers which have pirated software installed, and would hope that no potential customer would ask me to break the law for them.

  • Customers of consultants are able to get better service as the only limitations that exist for creating computer based solutions is the knowledge of the consultant (and their associates) and the ability to pay for the time required. There is no waiting for future releases from a third party software owner, and there is no 'passing the buck' claiming that a specific feature is just not possible given a set of existing tools.

  • The software solutions are much more reliable and bug free, as the source code is available for extensive peer review and quick bug fix distribution. This has very important implications for upcoming issues such as the so-called Year 2000 software bug that has received so much media attention.

  • Programmers get paid for the work they do in creating new software, often directly from an end-user customer. The market for software is greatly expanded, and the ability for small companies or individual entrepreneurs (The real growth area in our economy) is enhanced because the entry cost for a development environment and other overhead is minimal.

  • Solutions for customers become solutions driven, rather than sales driven. The object of a relationship between a software user and a software producer/consultant is to create or configure software to meet some need of the customer. The sales pitch to the user is for the qualifications of the consultant, and not for some specific pre-defined "One size fits all" type of solution.

    RedHat Software, a company that creates CD distributions of the Linux Operating System (As well as other software), explains this best in their RedHat 5.0 Users Manual:

    ..."changes the model of software development and distribution to one much like the model our Legal system and its industry uses. If a lawyer designs an argument that wins his case in front of the supreme court his reward is not only the fees his client pays him but also the additional clients that his achievement attracts to his practice. The ``argument'' he used becomes available for any other lawyer to use without restriction, and in fact becomes part of our collective legal heritage.
  • Since the Free Software model is solutions driven rather than sales-driven, older computers are able to be used and kept from filling our landfill sites. With the ability to customize a solution quite easily, only the software required for a given task needs to be installed. I have a number of customers who have used old 386/486 computers with only 8M of RAM and 300Mb hard disks as File-Servers (To share files on their LAN), Print-Servers (To share printers), or Internet/Intranet gateways (On-Demand Dialup to an Internet Access Provider, LAN Based Email, WEB server for WEB document exchange on LAN).

The largest problem that is keeping this model from becoming the most dominant model in the computer industry relates to a large number of misconceptions and myths relating to software, and due to the fact that the existing software owners who control the industry do not want to give up this exclusive control to truly Free Market forces. Most customers will be either unfamiliar with alternative software models, or will have been given incorrect information about these alternatives. The best way to show how these solutions work is to demonstrate them rather than just talk about them.

With this in mind many consultants such as myself who primarily work in this new software model, also consult to customers using software produced within the older model. My general computer experience at both the hardware and software level, as well as my specific Networking experience enables me to offer basic consulting services on pretty much any computing platform. Many of my customers are organizations who have a number of Microsoft Windows, OS/2, Macintosh or similar proprietary O.S. based computers and have hired me to maintain their network and to install and maintain a LAN server.

For most of them, the choice of software models or brand names for their file-server is not relevant, and they just wish to hire me to make it work. The fact that I can offer them solutions at well below the costs of my competitors becomes an advantage. In most cases, the consulting time for my services and someone offering a proprietary solution would be similar, making the only cost difference the cost of the software itself. For my solutions, software either comes at no additional cost, or at minimal media, manual printing, and installation support costs.

Once I have demonstrated that the model can work for them as their File-server, the conversation is then much more open for other suggestions relating to their use of computers.

It should be noted, however, that I do not plan on offering support for proprietary systems indefinitely, but offering myself as a consultant during the transition. This will mean a few things:

  • I will temporarily support proprietary operating systems as a desktop operating system, but not as a server unless the project I have been hired for is to migrate server services from that proprietary system to a Free Software based solution.
  • I only support the current generation of desktop operating systems such as MS-DOS, Windows 3.x/9x and OS/2. Those customers that have chosen or will choose to take a further proprietary step to Windows NT/Windows 2000 or similar are not as likely to be interested in the upgrade to Free Software based solutions. A premium for this is charged as part of my consulting rates, and depending on availability may not be able to offer the service.
  • Since the market for supporting Free Software systems is expanding at almost geometric rates I will be concentrating on customers that are moving towards this environment. For customers that make it obvious to me that they wish to have their freedoms reduced through increased dependency on proprietary software, I will try to find them an alternative consultant to offer them the support they need. My services are best offered in environments where my skills and methodology matches the needs of the customer.