Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Is Open-Source "Freetarded"?

Is open-source "freetarded"? I just ran across an article by Christopher Keene pointing out that open-source has to be about more than free and that vendors have to start thinking that way. And he is absolutely correct!

If software is only free, you are addressing only part of having software be valuable and having a low TCO. As the article above points out, if you can't get the software installed and working, or you can't find talent to be able to work with the software, that "free" software starts to get pretty expensive.

In order to fully deliver on the promise of open-source, software must have three qualities:

  1. Free and easy access - This is kind of assumed with open-source, but must be stated so we don't forget it. For most users it isn't about the source, but rather is about free and easy access to a binary or distribution. While I have to confess that I have downloaded source and built my own binaries for a variety of apps and even newer versions of Linux kernels (and I'm probably even proud of this fact), most users don't have the aptitude or desire to do that, so having binaries is a must.

  2. Easy to use - This is extremely important and sometimes forgotten with open-source projects. If you download something and can't get it installed, or after installation can't get it configured or working, you can end up wasting a significant amount of time losing the "free" aspect of the software. Worse, if that initial experience is bad you may not come back again to try it and worse yet, word of mouth and hmmm, blogging, can spread the word about a product being difficult to use very quickly.

  3. Vibrant community - This last piece is also very important. Without it you don't get the collaboration and feedback that help drive innovation and help make the software better. Furthermore, if there is no community, adoption suffers and that leads to small pools of talent resulting in higher costs for organizations wanting to use the software.

You only have to look as far as the Apache Web Server and Apache Tomcat, or more recently GlassFish to see examples of where these three qualities have led to successful open-source projects that have had and are gaining widespread adoption and use and have driven down TCO for organizations that are implementing the software. And while it isn't as large or mature as those mentioned, Open ESB is also applying the qualities to create a successful open-source project.

A related question that deserves its own blog entry but I'll mention here is, if software is free, how does a vendor make any money off it? See Mark's blog from some recent interaction with our customers to see their views on paying for "free" open-source software, and stay tuned for more on the subject.

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