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Taking the “Free” Out of Open Source

In 1998, I was among the five-person group that coined the term "open source" (the others being Todd Anderson, Chris Peterson, Larry Augustin, and Eric Raymond). The five of us were brought together after Netscape decided to make their browser free software. Our goals were twofold: see what we could do to make sure that Netscape was successful with their free software project, and do what we could to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Netscape event to make Linux successful.

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In 1998, I was among the five-person group that coined the term “open source” (the others being Todd Anderson, Chris Peterson, Larry Augustin, and Eric Raymond). The five of us were brought together after Netscape decided to make their browser free software. Our goals were twofold: see what we could do to make sure that Netscape was successful with their free software project, and do what we could to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Netscape event to make Linux successful.

With the second goal in mind, we decided to come up with a new name to replace free software: Open Source. When at the end of the meeting we decided to promote the use of the term Open Source, we really had no idea that it was going to catch on as quickly as it did.

What we did know was that free software had all the necessary ingredients to be a huge success. Most of us were spending every waking hour either playing with free software, promoting it, programming it, or evangelizing for it. We had all used Unix before and could tell that Linux had largely caught up. Furthermore, we knew that at the rate Linux was being improved, it could easily become an unstoppable force. It was clear that much of the free software that was then available was better than almost any other software out there, at any price.

Despite all of the benefits afforded by free software, all five of us had run into the same problem again and again. We’d try to convince someone to use free software only to be rebuffed because of the word “free.” People certainly weren’t scared by the concept of freedom; they weren’t even necessarily scared by the fact that they could get the software at no cost (i.e., “free.”) But they were scared that the word free was so closely tied to the software.

In other words, the concepts behind free software were almost universally embraced by potential users, but only after overcoming the suspicions created by the term “free.”

Free software, at least to those who aren’t part of the Unix/Linux world, means something very specific — the freeware and shareware files found at Web sites like winfiles.com. The primary advantage of this software is that it is usually free (from a cost perspective). In fact, that is often the only advantage.

Freeware and shareware as a general rule:

a) Don’t come with any source code. It’s extremely rare in the Microsoft community to get the source code to anything.

b) Are generally written by one person and therefore are small projects. This may be because these projects don’t come with source code; it’s hard for people to contribute if the source code isn’t distributed.

c) Are free only in that you can get them for free (with shareware, you can get them, use them, and if you like them, pay a fee).

The above ideas are inextricably attached to the words “free software,” and the five of us wanted to address this common misperception. We had all spent too much time explaining the differences between freeware and “free software,” and while our efforts may have been successful on a case-by-case basis, they did not seem to be helping the adoption of free software in general.

What we weren’t trying to do — and I think many people misunderstand this — was hide the importance of freedom. Ultimately, it is the freedom of open source software that provides its most powerful advantages. If we could have designed a name that expressed a clear and accurate message of freedom, we certainly would have. But no one’s been able to come up with such a term since the dawn of the free software movement.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which understandably continues to advocate the use of the term free software, has always said that the way to solve the problem is through education. They understand, just as we do, that the term “free” is strongly associated with “free of cost,” not “free as in freedom.” In fact, the FSF’s Web site talks about how an, “unambiguously correct term would be better.” But, once again, they have never found one.

Ultimately, the Free Software movement has much of the complexity of movements like Capitalism, Marxism, Zionism, and Catholicism. It’s not something that can be summed up in one phrase. Nonetheless, use of the term Open Source helps to provide some sort of indication of its unique qualities from a functional standpoint. Open Source has thus provided us with a neutral starting-ground from which to explain what this movement is all about.

The importance of this effort cannot be understated. For most users, the real benefit of open source software is not the cherished ideal of freedom, but rather that it tends to be very reliable and very flexible. When people are shopping for software (sophisticated software to run their network, their Web site, their company, etc.), they value these qualities. Given that the reliability of open source software is due partly to its freely available source code, this builds an effective, positive association with the term Open Source.

Flexibility is also a must for enterprise or infrastructure software. Choosing a platform or a piece of software, implementing it (which in the real world can take months, and at large corporations can often take years) only to find that it lacks the ability to do something that you need it to do — or worse, something your boss needs it to do — can be a disaster to your project, your company, and potentially, your career.

Another important factor that is considered is ease of use. This reminds me of the old joke about Unix: Unix is easy to use once you memorize 2,000 commands and all of the options that go with them. But seriously, most of the complaints about Linux being difficult to use come from people who are using it as a desktop operating system; they are not coming from people using Linux/Open Source as an Internet server or as a piece of enterprise infrastructure.

And, especially in today’s economy, users care about cost. But they are also smart enough to realize that cost isn’t primarily reflected in what you pay just for the software. That’s only a minor part of it. The total cost includes that plus the cost of downtime (reliability), the cost of not being able to do what you need to (flexibility), and the cost of being able to quickly do what you need to (ease of use). This is where the buzzwords “total cost of ownership” (TCO) come in; for most companies, this is what is most important.

These same companies are more than willing to use open source software once they understand that it can actually lead to a lower TCO. It’s just that people are cynical; they expect higher costs of ownership with anything that is labeled as “free.” “If I don’t pay now, I’ll pay later,” was a common mindset I encountered from IT buyers.

Getting a company to use open source software is a good thing. It’s only after they start using open source software that they may consider releasing software created for internal use as open source. Or, they may add a feature to a piece of open source software and contribute it back to the community. Even the small things that a company is likely to do, such as simply buying a support contract from Red Hat, means more money for companies like Red Hat to spend on improving Linux.

Three years ago, Netscape caught the free software world largely by surprise when a press release hit the wire stating:

Netscape announces plans to make next-generation Communicator source code available free on the Net — Bold move to harness creative power of thousands of Internet developers; company makes Netscape Navigator and Communicator 4.0 immediately free for all users, seeding market for both enterprise and Netcenter businesses.

We knew that with Netscape now behind “free software,” it was a great time to explain to the world what was possible with free software and Linux. But we also knew that the world had a short attention span and was quick to jump to conclusions. We felt that by renaming the term from “free” to “open source,” people wouldn’t say “free software — I know what that is — it’s like shareware except you don’t have to pay for it — end of question,” but instead would say “open source — I wonder what that is?”

Even today, this question continues to be asked. It’s important that we answer the question correctly and explain to the world the advantages of open source software. The answer is too complicated for sound bites and too important to allow misconceptions to stand. Open Source is a good term — now it’s up to all of us to make sure that the world understands exactly what we mean by it.



Sam Ockman is founder and CTO of Penguin Computing. He can be reached at ockman@penguincomputing.com.

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