Linux in 2009, Recession vs. GNU Page 2

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"I can't see how 'the free software ideals' can fail to become more important in the coming year," Brown said. "As people depend more on more on technology, it's important to have a philosophy about technology, and free software gives a strong baseline for what that means."

In particular, Brown sees an opportunity to promote free software ideals in education.

"We need to have a conversation about teaching children to be in control of the technology they use and not just teaching them to be consumers of technology," Brown said. "It connects well with the economic situation, trying to get teachers and parent associations to become fundamentally aware of this issue, and to get in control of the technology that children are using. Why is it that we can send $100 laptops to the poor children of the world with an understanding that there's a new paradigm for learning, yet here in the United States, no conversation has been had about how we educate our children?"

For Brown, such issues of community awareness are far more important than concerns about particular software, even the Free Software Foundation's high-priority list of essential projects. FOSS in 2009 will inherit a number of technological issues from the past, including the state of software patents in the United States following 2008's Bilski case, or the continued use of so-called Digital Rights Management technology by companies like Apple.

But he suggested that such closely focused concerns will matter less than the opportunity to raise general awareness of FOSS among the general public.

"I would encourage all the vendors and the communities to say that this is the year that, if we increase the overall awareness, it will be good for every free software project and vendor," Brown said. "'2009' does seem a unique year, a unique opportunity to make free software a viable and meaningful option to society. It all comes down to political will. And that's something that the Free Software Foundation certainly wants to address in the coming year. I foresee more free software adoption through economic re-evaluation of the system."

Limits to Growth?

With no serious difference in opinion among experts, probably the largest question is how far FOSS adoption will go in the next year.

Palamida, a company that sells FOSS management solutions, recently conducted a survey among its client base of companies earning $50 million per year and higher in a variety of industries, particularly financial services. Of the IT managers who replied, 45 percent said they would consider open source as a cost-saving measure — but nearly 55 percent said they would not.

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The reason for the resistance, suggested Theresa Bui, vice president of product marketing at Palamida, may be the rash of security-related headlines about FOSS in 2008, including reported vulnerabilities in Android, Asterisk, and Debian.

Many of these problems, Bui pointed out, were due to the use of unpatched versions of free software, and all were quickly patched. She suggested that FOSS might be "a victim of its newness" among senior managers. All the same, such perceptions might seriously inhibit FOSS' ability to gain popularity during the coming year, recession or no recession.

So far, though, such concerns do not seem to be inhibiting interest. According to Vescuso, Black Duck, which also specializes in FOSS management, describes business as "better than ever," with increased business in the previous quarter of 2008 and a current quarter that looks even stronger. So, whatever the limits to FOSS growth in 2009, they may not be reached until some months into the new year.

The general agreement among experts is that not only is FOSS well-equipped to face the recession of 2009, but that those who adopt it will be better off when the hard times are over.

Jim Zemlin likened the benefit to wise investment on the stock market. "In a down market, those who have managed risk effectively by hedging it, spreading it out effectively, tend to come out ahead because they have the most cash that they can then invest as the market rebounds."

"Linux is in a similarly hedged position, and I think that we'll all benefit from that," he added.

Bruce Byfield is a regular contributor to Datamation, where this article first appeared.

This article was originally published on Dec 31, 2008
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