Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source software of the year

Open source software continues the march toward world domination, but the bright open promise dims

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But let's say you want to do something with this source code other than start up the pokiest simulators known to man, the Android simulators for your PC. The smartphone may reject your recompiled code, no matter how much it cuts power consumption or makes life better. There are plenty of stories about programmers who thought they knew what "open source" meant but discovered that the phone manufacturers have different ideas.

As Jeff Bates, a former editor at Slashdot, put it, "They're phone companies. They're not in it for the love of the sport."

Then there's the issue of timing. Google is trying to extract leverage by keeping the code in a secret lair, at least when it's new. Do you want the source to Android 3.0? Sorry. That version is just for special partners who are cutting special deals with Google. But don't worry. Some day your grandkids will be able to compile that code because Google will release it eventually.

Paying the developers
These kinds of power games are becoming increasingly common in the open source world. There are a number of wonderful projects filled with great code written by a company that also sells a commercial version of the software. In order to keep the company in business, the so-called community version offers just enough of a taste to get you interested. Anyone with real needs will have to buy the commercial edition. The game is to come up with some secret sauce that will be seductive enough to get people to pay up.

This can be glaringly obvious. The menus at RedHat.com are filled with options such as Buy Online and Renew Subscriptions, but I couldn't find a way to download the source in a few minutes of poking around the entrance page. I'm sure it's there, but the website is designed to make money, not to make it easy for people to grab the source.

RedHat.com is hardly alone. SugarCRM, for instance, brags about being open source and it makes it easy to download a copy of the "community edition" before trying to sell you on all of the advantages to a "free trial" of the pro software. It's not really fair to single out these companies by name because many open source companies are looking for any leverage to keep enough revenue flowing so the bills will be paid.

Defenders say that this tension between freedom and forced payment is only natural and doesn't hurt the main goal. The source is still available. You can modify it just as you like even if it requires paying the commercial license fees. Richard Stallman has long said that software must be "free as in speech, not free as in beer."

The open source world still hasn't found a good way to resolve the tension. In the past, some hoped that the hard-core developers would be able to support themselves by selling "support," but this tactic seems to be on the wane and value-added options such as hosting and custom development have become more common.

The old proprietary companies are noticing that hand-holding and packaging can be more important to customers than access to the source. Oracle, for instance, offers fully functioning demo versions because it knows that most developers aren't interested in actually reading the code. The programmers just want to see if the database actually does what they need. If the code goes into production, Oracle is there with a license.

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