One of the common objections I hear about open source software is along the lines of “Why do I care about access to the source code? The last thing I want is responsibility for more code.” Catching the word ‘source’, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s the whole point of open source and thus the domain of sandalled revolutionaries fixated on programming.
But a focus on software freedom isn’t just for the revolutionaries. All the values that make CIOs pick open source software are derived from software freedom. You can use the presence of software freedom as the ‘genetic marker’ for value to your business.
The free software definition does indeed read like a revolutionary manifesto, partly because it is. The people behind it often eschew the pragmatism of the term ‘open source’ and focus on liberty alone. It’s worth looking behind their philosophy though. I paraphrase the free software definition as guaranteeing the liberty to use, study, modify and distribute software without interference. Those four liberties create value for business:
- The freedom to use the software for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees). This is what drives the trend to adoption-led deployment, where iterative prototyping leads to rapid solutions.
- The availability of skills and suppliers because they have had no barriers to studying the source code and experimenting with it. The market in open source tools and consultants is getting richer and more vibrant by the day because of this freedom.
- The assurance that vendors can’t withhold the software from you because anyone has the freedom to modify and re-use the source code. If a vendor decides to end support for open source software, another company can step in and carry on where they left off.
- The freedom to pass the software on to anyone that needs it, even including your own enhancements – including your staff, suppliers, customers and (in the case of governments) citizens.
When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, not out of a sense of philosophical purity but because their budgets and success depend on it. All the values that differentiate open source for the CIO are the first derivative of freedom.
Having meaningful markers governments and larger businesses can use in their procurement to favour open source – the software that lowers costs, avoids lock-in and enables unexpected future uses of data and software – is not a matter of angels on pinheads or out-of-touch insiderism. It’s exactly what the enterprises I’ve been visiting are asking for. Look for the genetic marker of business value – open source.
[First published in ComputerWorldUK in 2010]
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
While you are not compelled to do so, the author would welcome notification of derivatives, especially translations which will be gladly posted here. If your intended use is commercial, please do ask for permission as it is usually granted; it is withheld because of past abuses.