Open source is filled with freeloaders

Summary:Free software leaves us free to create more knowledge, to spread the benefits of Moore's Law to more people at lower price points. It has been a lever on knowledge and the capability of the human mind the likes of which we have never seen before.

With OSCON in the rear-view mirror the usual grievances are being aired.

Open source doesn't innovate. Some open source is vaporware. Big companies take advantage of open source but don't comply with the license terms.

It usually comes down to this. Open source is filled with freeloaders.

(Red Skelton himself originally painted this, a portrait of his Freddie the Freeloader character. The Plate Lady offers copies for $495.)

It's true. That's a bug, not a feature.

Open source is a process, not a technology. Open source uses the economics of the Internet to drive costs out of software development and distribution, while at the same time making the base for computer development and use wider, and deeper, every year.

Open source drives out monopoly profits. An innovator once had decades to take advantage of their breakthrough. Now it's just a few years, maybe months. This doesn't just stop Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. It keeps anyone in software from being just like them, ever again.

Who's the winner in all this?

You are.

Around they time I took on this beat, in 2005, I helped a friend upgrade their Windows installation.

It was a tedious process. Because my friend didn't want to lose access to his old software, his old installation had to be mirrored. Technically this violated license agreements, but over the years my friend had spent thousands of dollars on his software applications. He lacked the cash to do it otherwise.

I saw him last month and asked how things were. He had upgraded again. But this time the process was quite different.

Now he just downloaded and installed the programs he used most often. Openoffice.org for his office tasks. His Firefox browser. The Gimp for editing pictures. A screen capture program. Thunderbird for his e-mail, a free version of Mailwasher to clear out the spam, iTunes for his music. Those programs that weren't open source were still free as in beer.

The only software he paid for, he told me, was Windows 7. That came bundled with his machine, he had no choice in the matter. It took him a week, but he was working better than ever. His incremental cost was zero dollars. Much of it would update automatically.

Multiply my friend's experience by hundreds of millions, maybe billions. Consider how even enterprises, large and small, are taking advantage of these economics and you start to see my point.

Open source has truly changed the world. Most of the benefits have flowed to freeloaders, ordinary users treating the freedom of software as free beer. The money has been lost by developers and venture capitalists and salesmen and computer stores.

Software has been in a deflationary spiral since the world of open source began, and even while its use has expanded its economic value to those who made it has declined toward zero.

Once again that's a feature, not a bug. Free software leaves us free to create more knowledge, to spread the benefits of Moore's Law to more people at lower price points. It has been a lever on knowledge and the capability of the human mind the likes of which we have never seen before.

Instead of condemning all this, or complaining about how the glass is half-empty of economic calories, maybe it's time we took a bow. As with Red Skelton, freeloaders create value, too.

Topics: Open Source

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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