Free as in Speech vs. Free as in Beer, Redux

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Oct 6, 2009


Take a look in any data center anywhere in the world, and you may well find free software running there. Linux, in particular, has done extraordinarily well for itself during the past decade, popping up in places that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

OS Roundup: Talk free software and the free in question is the noble 'study and modify' free, not the 'I don't have to pay for this' ilk. Reality indicates otherwise, according to a recent survey.

But why? "Well it's bound to be popular isn't it?" you'll hear the non-tech savvy say. "Everyone loves something that's free." And that's your cue to launch into the whole spiel about "free as in beer," and "free as in speech." About how software wants to be free. And about how, as the Free Software Foundation puts it, "we call this free software because the user is free. Free software is the foundation of a learning society — where the tools we all use are free to share, study and modify."

We can also point out if we want to — or if we're Microsoft — that Linux and other free software usually isn't always free as in beer. Money often changes hands — Red Hat and Novell are testament to that — even if strictly speaking what you're paying for is called a support contract or a maintenance subscription.

The point is that when we talk about free software, the free in question is the noble "study and modify" free, not the "I don't have to pay for this" type of free. This all sounds jolly high-minded, but there's just one problem: It doesn't happen to be true. The awkward fact is that the major appeal of free software turns out to be that it is free. As in beer. As in "I don't have to pay a bean for this. Whoopee."

That's the picture that emerges from the 2009 Actuate Annual Open Source Survey. It finds 67 percent of French respondents and 60.6 percent of German ones are already using open source software, while in the United Kingdom and North America the figure is a more moderate 42.1 percent and 41 percent, respectively. The French in particular have been active in encouraging the use of open source software in the public sector, although many other countries are following suit.

But when respondents were asked about the main perceived benefits of adopting open source software, the majority (58.1 percent) cited "no license costs." What appealed to them, in other words, was getting something for nothing. Did they want to muck about with the source code? To share, study and modify? To free themselves of the restrictive shackles of end user license agreements and stick one in the eye of the great imperialist Satan of software that is Microsoft?

Actually it was more a case of "I'm only here for the beer."

That's not to say no one was interested in accessing the source code — 39.9 percent did cite that as a reason for using open source software — about the same number (36.5 Percent) that cited sticking one in the eye of the great imperialist Satan of software, or, rather more accurately, "not locked into Microsoft."

When you look at the geographical split, though, one thing comes through very clearly. In China, a staggering 72.6 percent of respondents cited access to source code as a major perceived benefit of open source software, just 1.9 percent less than the segment (74.5 percent) citing "no license costs" as a major benefit. (Of course you could argue that the benefit of no licensing costs is undervalued in China because — how do I put this politely? — many Chinese organizations are believed to use "unofficial" versions of Microsoft's products that, let's just say, probably wouldn't pass the Windows Genuine Advantage test.)

But why do the Chinese value access to source code so much more than we do in the West? Could it be because China churns out 100,000 new programmers from its Universities every year, and they have to do something with those skills. Putting them to work mucking about with source code — sharing, studying, modifying and improving it — is an ideal solution.

Given that Chinese programmers earn just $10 per hour, according to Actuate, modifying source code is a far more practical proposition for Chinese organizations competing in the global market than it is for Western organizations that must pay considerably more than that for skilled programmers. That's not good news for North American and European based coders.

But assuming all this modified and improved code is shared and made available to everyone, everywhere — as it is supposed to — this could be a huge benefit to Linux users everywhere.

The other good news is that a need for onshore programming talent will remain for the foreseeable future. That's because it's always wise to check through any source code before using it: You wouldn't want to find that the software you're running inexplicably phones home to China every evening, now would you?

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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