Coming around again

My previous blog, Pay a little now, pay a lot later, generated a lot more traffic than I expected. Lots. As a consequence, it was seen by many people who probably aren’t as familiar with certain aspects of free software as my normal target audience. This led to several misunderstandings.

First, I am a capitalist. More than a few people interpreted my comments as that I thought profit is bad and companies are evil. This isn’t the appropriate forum for me to detail my political beliefs, but I assure you that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Suffice it to say that I enjoy making money and don’t begrudge anyone else turning an honest buck.

Second is the apparently common misperception that I was referring to freeware—that is, software that can be downloaded for free—rather than free software. The difference is subtle but critical. In the former, users gain no other advantage over purchased software than lack of a price tag. In the latter, users gain the legal right to tailor the software to match their needs. Although both can (usually) be obtained free of charge, only free software interests me. In the long run, saving a few dollars on the initial purchase isn’t terribly important. A company’s ability to maintain customized versions of their mission critical software, even if their vendor goes out of business or changes it in inconvenient ways, gives it a huge advantage over its competitors.

It’s not even strictly true that free software is always free of charge. Although unusual, it is possible to buy packages from certain vendors. Much more common is the purchase of support contracts. For example, if you buy a copy of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, you’re really paying for Red Hat’s maintenance and support. Although some have the idea that free software is supported exclusive by teenagers in their parents’ basements, the reality is that many vendors specialize is charging for these services.

Next is the belief that I advocate free software because it “feels good”. No. I personally support free software because I think it’s the best solution for legal and technical reasons in addition to any moral arguments. I hate having to install proprietary software not because I think it’s unethical to sell software or out of miserliness, but because I’m always acutely aware that my fortunes are then tied to the wishes of its authors. As an individual, I loathe giving up that control over my personal information. As a businessman, I detest giving someone else the reins to my ability to earn money.

In retrospect, I should have expanded on what I meant about open systems encouraging competition on merit. I mentioned that free software and open standards allow migration between applications. They also allow migration between vendors, which is at least as important and often more so depending on how heavily a company leans on external support. If you’ve been buying support from Red Hat, you can get a competitive bid from Novell for the same services. Besides maintaining standard applications, either of those companies will gladly submit proposals to create custom versions of those applications or GNU/Linux itself. How many companies will support you to the point of offering customized versions of Windows—at any price?

I do recognize that certain proprietary applications simply don’t have suitable free software replacements (examples: Photoshop, CAD, R/3). If you have to use such software, then by all means do so. However, in these cases it’s especially important that you follow development of any free contenders. If you absolutely have to use a certain program to stay in business, you are beholden to its vendor far more than the office who simply needs a good word processor.

Finally, some felt that I dismissed home users as incapable or unimportant. I don’t think I did, and that certainly wasn’t my intent. Still, I stand by my premise that it’s not as critical for a home user to choose well as it is for a company, as the price for not doing so is much, much lower. If my sister sold her PC and bought a Mac, she’ll spend a day getting familiar with her new system and copying her data over. Larger organizations don’t have that flexibility. If they spend a huge portion of their IT budget buying a platform-specific application, they’re basically locked to that platform until such time as the vendor ports it to another platform or the the company replaces it with something else. Put another way, it’s still important for my sister to enjoy the same freedoms that I and other free software users enjoy, but her livelihood isn’t at stake if she doesn’t do so.

It’s not my goal to respond to every opinion that disagrees with mine. However, my last column received such an unanticipatedly large audience that many outside my normal readership saw it and weren’t sure what to make of my ideas. I hope a few of those people read this and that it clears up some questions for them.

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