In the 1958 movie The Horse's Mouth, Alec Guinness plays an artist who takes over a luxury flat so he can paint on its wall while its owners are on vacation. After reducing the flat to shambles, he looks at his finished mural and says quietly, "It's not what I meant. Not the vision I had. Why doesn't it fit like it does in the mind?"
After ten years of observing free and open source software's (FOSS) on-again, off-again relationship with business, I have similar sentiments about the growing perception that its main advantage is to reduce costs in the current recession.
Obviously, no company is going to refuse the chance to save money. However, the focus on this side-benefit is threatening to overshadow the main advantages of FOSS -- and that's true regardless of whether you take an open source or a free software perspective. As I wrote last year, such an emphasis amounts to world domination for the wrong reason.
The Growing Interest in FOSS
The increased interest in free software actually pre-dates the recession. Last spring, when the recession was only the concern of an eccentric minority, I talked to several venture capitalists, all of whom reported a renewed interest in FOSS.
The main reason for the renewed interest, Larry Augustin suggested, was that, in contrast to the first interest in FOSS during the Dot-Com era, FOSS had proved itself. "Before, there weren't many examples of how to make it work. What has happened in the last couple of years is that venture capital firms have gotten very comfortable with the idea that they can build businesses around open source, and there are examples of it having been done," such as Red Hat and MySQL. Similarly, Lisa Lambert of Intel Capital pointed out that the close relation between FOSS and cloud computing was partly responsible for the renewed interest.
Yet, even a year ago, the emphasis was on various cost savings. Lambert pointed out that, by adopting FOSS to their own purposes, companies can bring a product to market more quickly, and exploit niche markets that might not be worth developing with more expensive proprietary software -- rather like new mining techniques that make less accessible ore or oil less expensive to extract.
Cost was also the emphasis at the end of last year, when Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation predicted that FOSS would become more popular in 2009 because it was multi-platform, easy to customize and rebrand, and could aid companies in their race to obtain the lowest price point.
Three months into 2009 and deeper into the recession, the advantages of FOSS are being discussed more than ever. The difference is that second-hand evidence is now being trotted out to suggest that FOSS adoption is accelerating. For instance, an IDC study sponsored by Novell suggests that two-thirds of IT executives polled are considering using GNU/Linux on the desktop, and 72% are considering using it for servers.
In the same vein, Chris Preimesberger reports Matt Asay as saying at this year's Open Source Business Conference that FOSS-based companies as a whole have survived the last six months in better shape than most. Asay goes on to say that a few years ago a company did not want to deal with Alfresco (his employer), because its open source strategy was "too risky," he recently heard from the same company that buying proprietary software was too risky.
Increasingly, Asay says, "I'm hearing the same things: Open source is now the less-risky investment."
When you look closely, you notice that such indicators do not translate into hard statistics about actual FOSS use, and that some are merely anecdotal. But what matters is not the shakiness of the evidence, but the fact that the main point that is being used to promote FOSS today is that it represents lower costs.
Even Zemlin is emphasizing cost. Blogging about Microsoft's promotion of its products as cheaper than those of Apple, Zemlin notes that FOSS is even cheaper. He ends by referring to the Linux Foundation's recent contest for a Linux commercial, adding, "Maybe we should come up with a last minute entry featuring some happy Linux shoppers keeping almost all their cash."
Suddenly, the low cost of FOSS seems everything.
The Wrong Reason
Controlling costs is a natural concern of any company. Nor can Zemlin be faulted for doing his job and promoting FOSS by any available means. Still, this emphasis makes me seriously uneasy as a FOSS advocate.
The problem is not that business is becoming more deeply involved with FOSS. That has been a reality now for years, and the majority in the FOSS community have long ago made their peace with the fact. If nothing else, FOSS would not be as advanced as it is today without the massive contributions made by corporations.