Open source equals software freedom, not free software

How can big companies like Tibco misunderstand open source so badly nearly 15 years after the term was coined?

Vivek Ranadive, CEO of Tibco, is one of the industry's big thinkers, complete with a profile in Esquire. So why would a smart guy like him dismiss open source as "fool's gold"? And why do some software vendors believe they can justify "FRAND terms" on software standards and permit patented capabilities to be inserted into software standards?

These anachronisms and more arise from the "price frame" surrounding open source software. A result of misunderstanding the meaning of the word "free" in "free software," the price frame has been the Rosetta Stone for decoding open source for the past decade. But that's ending, now that we're able to see the true power of open source in ecosystems like OpenStack, where the price of a license is barely relevant.

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Parsing the price frame

For software users, the top driver at the start of the last decade was certainly the word "free." The price of a license to use any open source software is $0 if you're willing to make the binary yourself or if someone makes one for general distribution. This was the major motivation for early adopters back in 1998, when the Open Source Initiative was formed. But the null price is an artifact of software freedom rather than its goal, and I believe a fixation on "free" has held back our understanding of open source for a decade -- and continues to fixate the marketing messages of software dinosaurs.

In particular, I'm referring to the linguistic context created by "price frame," an idea popularized by George Lakoff. The power of the common understanding of "free" leads us to view the whole domain of open source in terms of money. Thus, we hear open source being both attacked and defined in terms of "business model," "monetization," "royalty-free," "licensing," "TCO," "intellectual property," and so on.

The software freedom philosophy guarantees users and developers the right to deploy software for any purpose, to study its source code, to make modifications as desired, and to pass both the software and modifications to others. Use, study, modify, distribute: the four guaranteed freedoms of open source.

You'll note "price" isn't mentioned; it's actually OK to ask for money for open source software, so long as you don't attempt to withhold those freedoms from people who don't pay. As a consequence, if you're directly distributing open source software, you need a business model that doesn't depend on artificially enforced scarcity of the program. To focus on the price is to remain trapped in the paradigm of proprietary software.

In the early days users who focused on price often found the cost savings -- based purely on skipping the up-front license fee for the software in their solution -- could not be sustained or grown. That's because the main cost of many enterprise software solutions, open or closed, is tied to sustaining ongoing value and keeping the solution humming with the help of skilled experts.

Gaining access to those experts, either by employment or by subscription, will be the main lifetime cost of the software, whether or not you paid up-front for a license. As your environment changes and you update and improve your solution, you'll spend money for those skills. In this regard, open source helps you control how and when you spend money (and with whom) rather than marching to the beat of a vendor's drum.

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