The Cost Savings of FOSS: Business Success for the Wrong Reason

Wednesday Apr 1st 2009 by Bruce Byfield
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More than mere cost savings, Free and open source software has to the power to transform business.

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.

Instead, the reason for the uneasiness lies in the emphasis. According to Asay, the new reality "is that we're past the 'purity stage'. We've spent ages trying to decide who was a real open-source company and who was not. [But] customers just want things that work."

In other words, customers are not interested in the idealism that created FOSS and continues to sustain it. They are only interested in practical results -- and the choice of words seems to be that the shift to this emphasis is desirable.

To this attitude, I can only respond, as Alec Guinness did in The Horse's Mouth, "It's not what I meant. Not the vision I had."

I haven't spent the last ten years encouraging those around me to use FOSS or the last five years writing about FOSS so that corporate customers can save money. I did these things because I believe that FOSS has the power to transform business and society by showing that cooperation has at least as much power as competition, and by adding a sense of social responsibility to everyday business. I didn't do them to help the system continue as it presently exists. If FOSS aids business, fine -- but that's a side effect, and not my main concern.

No matter what your perspective on FOSS, the emphasis on cost has something in it to concern you. If you are an open source advocate who values FOSS because it empowers people by producing better software that is available for everyone, you might object to the fact that no mention is being made about software quality.

If you a free software supporter whose goal is computer freedom -- greater control for all users -- then your response might be even stronger. No matter how cheap FOSS might be, some attention to quality seems necessary to keep customers minimally satisfied. But if cost is the main concern, then idealism loses to short-term pragmatism. Customers will use proprietary software like Acrobat Reader or Adobe Flash Player as readily as they will free software equivalents like Evince or Gnash. After all, each is free for the download.

But, by refusing to make a distinction between proprietary and free software, they are abandoning the hope of a better world in the long term in favor of business-as-usual.

As Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, was recently reported as saying in Hungary, "I won't say no to more users, but of course if they only bought the thing to save them money then they have missed the main point."

I would go further and say that the same is true of a company. If a company views FOSS entirely as a way to keep its corporate fortunes alive, then it has also missed a chance to remake itself in ways that will make it more competitive in the future. I might even argue that it has ignored its moral obligations to pass the benefits of FOSS along, even though nothing in free licenses imposes such obligations.

FOSS and business as allies?

Where you stand on such matters depends very much on your perspective. After I published "The Microsoft-Novell Deal and Trust in Princes," in which I suggested that FOSS and business could be allies, but were not necessarily natural ones, Matthew Aslett criticized this view on the grounds that "open source is a business tactic, not a business model. Open source is a software development and/or distribution model that is enabled by a licensing tactic."

From this perspective, FOSS is a choice to be adopted or abandoned according to the fortunes of business. But the trouble is, for some of us -- possibly a dwindling minority -- FOSS is not a tactic, but a cause. Helping business is only of interest to us if it furthers our hopes for a better life for all computer users.

Very likely, such views sound deeply naive. But if using FOSS is reduced to a matter of expedience, then I might as well be using Windows -- or, because I value quality, a Mac.

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