Free Software – Should it Be Free?

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By now, you’ve probably heard about or read Mark Shuttleworth’s view on keeping free software free. Matt Asay has a take on Mark’s post here.

I don’t think that Mark’s basic point is “because RHEL is a closed binary, it’s proprietary” as Matt suggests. I read Mark’s point to be: “Free Software should be freely available“. So, that means, the RHEL binaries and updates should be freely available from Red Hat and freely distributable (you can already get the RHEL source freely from Red Hat).

Mark is not suggesting that a thoroughly tested, widely certified and secure RHEL product should not be available. (He actually says these are requirements).

He’s suggesting that such a rock-solid product (binaries) should be available for free and customers who want to pay for support around it, should do so. Those who want that same rock-solid platform (binaries) without support should be able to get it for free.

So, to Matt’s groceries/entree scenario. Mark suggests that the groceries are already free (i.e. kernel.org, Fedora, etc). He’d like the entree (i.e. RHEL) to be free for pickup if you’re going to eat it at home. But if you want to eat at the restaurant, hear the nice music, ask the chef some questions or impress your date, then you’re going to have to pay for that service/support.

So the entree is no different whether you decide to eat it at home (i.e. RHEL for free without support) or in the restaurant (i.e. RHEL with paid support).

NOTE: This is my take on Mark’s post, and the pragmatic “me” doesn’t totally buy into it. I don’t think that Red Hat, or other vendor, would be able to fund the same level of product development if some (significant) portion of today’s paying customers were to stop paying. There would be a direct link from:

– reduced revenue

– to reduced development funds

– to reduced functionality

– to reduced customer satisfaction

– to reduced users

– to further reduced revenue (repeat cycle)

Unless you just have a chunk of cash you can throw at the effort without worrying about meeting investor expectations. But since we all have bills and beer to pay for, things like revenue and profit require some consideration.

PS: The pic for freehugscampaign.org made me laugh, so I wanted to use it.



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I am taking a semi-break from IBM life as I return to finish a PhD in Industrial Engineering. I’ve held roles in market intelligence, strategy and product management. I’m ex-product manager of IBM WAS Community Edition, and blog about enterprise open source topics.

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