The value of freedom

What a cheesy title, and not quite what I’d originally had in mind. The cliches about freedom abound, but my question is really this one, posed in a slightly different context by Carl Hopkins in this Business Matters article: If it’s free, does it have value? Discuss.

Oh okay then, since you asked. The concept of the value of free aka open source software comes up frequently in various guises, most commonly in our experience as ‘why should we pay someone for something we can get for free?’, ‘if it’s free how can there be a successful (ie reliable) business model?’ and that old chestnut of focussing on the free-of-charge aspect of open source software, rather than the freedom to do what you like with the code.

Well, taking the first question first, any reputable company providing open source software and business services should never charge for software that’s absolutely free to get your hands on, run and do what you like with (that being the point of open source). However, just because you believe in open source, or even if you couldn’t care less but want the benefits, you don’t necessarily have the ability, inclination or time to play about with it, so then you’re paying a company to handle all that for you, leaving you free to do what you do best, whether that’s running a leisure resort, doing companies’ accounts or jetting all over the world conducting market research, to name just three of of our clients’ lines of work. You’re paying for someone else’s time, infrastructure and expertise, which keeps your business services flowing smoothly. You’d do just the same with a company providing you with proprietary software-run services, but you’d probably have all sorts of jolly extra license costs on top. Just because they can.

The second old saw: the open source business model. There’s lots of complicated stuff about that here, if you’re that way inclined. There are several different ways to build a successful business on open source software. Some open source software isn’t free to acquire, but the source code is freely available to amend and reissue; some open source software houses make money from selling training and support; then there’s dual-licensing, and also freemium-style open source software. These varieties bring us to the final point:

The point of open source software, in some cases referred to as free software, is that anyone is free to acquire the source code of the program, make all manner of changes to it, and release it as a new version. This is the freedom referred to in the name, and is far more important and significant than the fact that there’s no charge – which, as we’ve seen, isn’t always the case anyway. We realise this is completely lost on people who’d have a Hitchcockian moment of Birds-like horror at the prospect of playing with code, but take our word for it that this is a Very Good Thing.

So, value in something that’s free? I’d say so. If you disagree please leave a comment and let battle ensue.

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