It seems, as I surf on this subject looking for tidbits, I find myself often running into someone explaining that when it comes to open source, free doesn’t mean free. The meaningful point they are making is that “free” isn’t about money; it’s about freedom. If you use open source software your choices are nearly unlimited. For instance, if you want a change to the UI, you’re free to make that change. If you want the program extended to support some specific thing, you’re free to make that extension.
This is a real deal. I know among my techie friends, most of whom use a lot of closed source software, I hear complaints about both presentation and program process. (My son Ian, who is also a software engineer, is always saying “if only they had done that this way…”) With open source software, if you want something, and you have (or can hire) the skills, you can have it. You don’t get that without the source code.
But open source software is also free. That is, there are no licensing fees. You can install it, and run it, and extend it, and distribute it, and print it out and paper your walls with it if you want. It’s free.
I know there is an ongoing (and probably perpetual) debate about software TCO. The open sourcers say TCO is lower with open source software. The closed sourcers say TCO is lower with closed source software. Both make reasonable arguments, and both have lists of anecdotes that seem to support their position, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove a rule; it just proves a case. There’s one thing that there can be no debate on, and that is the initial cost of software. For open source software, that initial cost is zero, or at least nearly so.
I’ve heard the arguments that say you pay in the long run. I think those arguments are at least reasonable, if not entirely convincing. But what about the short run? You can’t pay in the long run unless you actually have a long run. Big successful corporations have money, and they may have a greater sense of value about their software if they buy it from a vendor they know and trust. (That greater sense of value may or may not have some basis in fact, but I digress.) But what about startup companies? Most startup companies are running on a tight budget. They are operated using savings, or venture capital, or small business loans, or whatever. But they are almost certainly working with a relatively static pool of cash at first. There is no regular river running into it. To them, the fact that open source software has no licensing fees may mean the difference between succeeding and failing. Every penny not spent on network software is available for other purposes, like marketing or R&D. The availability of open source software is a boon to these small companies.
Consider students as well. One example is math and engineering students, who often need access to Matlab for complex matrix calculations. By the time you tailor a Matlab installation with all the add on packages you need, you could spend well over $1000. That’s a lot of dough for a lot of students. On the other hand, Octave, an open source Matlab work-alike, is free. I’m involved right now in a highly technical project that requires Matlab. While I did eventually get a license from my client, I started out by downloading and using Octave. It’s free. And what about papers that are written by students? Sure, software companies offer some significant discounts to students, but OpenOffice is free. Free is a powerful word for students.
Sometimes, it’s good when free means, well, free.