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Sat, 2006-Mar-04

Free Software is not about Freedom of Choice

I was at HUMBUG last week, and was involved in a wide-ranging discussion. The topic of a particular closed-source software product came up, and a participant indicated that he maintained a windows desktop just to run the software. It was so good and integral to his work practices that he had a whole machine dedicated to it. He went on to criticise sectors of the open source community who tended to be irritated that closed source software was still in use. These are the sectors who have somewhat of a "with us" or "against us" view, and would prefer that closed source not be a part of anyone's lives. He asked (I think I'm getting the words right, here) After all, isn't free software about freedom of choice?.

I don't think it is.

Software alternatives are about freedom of choice. Whether the alternative is open source or closed source, the freedom of choice is not really affected. If I wrote a closed source alternative to Word, I would be providing freedom of choice to consumers. If I wrote an open source alternative to Word, I would be providing the same kind of freedom of choice. The difference is in the freedom of the customer once a transaction has been made. Open source software is primarily about post-choice customer freedom rather than freedom of choice, so it makes sense on at least one level for free software advocates to actively seek out unshackled alternatives to any closed source software they use from day to day.

In the software world we would traditionally see the freedoms of a consumer and the freedoms of a producer of software to be in conflict, however the foundation of open source development is to view the separation of consumer and producer as artificial. Freedoms given to the consumer are also given back to the producer, because the producer is also a consumer of this software. The barrier between consumer and producer exists naturally when only one entity is doing the producing. In that case the producer has automatic freedoms, and granting more to themselves has no meaning. However, consider the case of multiple producers. The freedoms granted to consumers are also granted to every producer when the production is shared between multiple entities. Open source produces a level playing field where entities that may compete in other areas can each limit the cost of this particular shared interest domain by working together.

When viewed from the angle of productivity improvement in a domain of shared interests, closed source alternatives can seem ugly and limiting. You will always know you are limited in closed source no matter how featureful a particular product is. You often can't make it better, and it would cost you a great deal to produce a competitive alternative as an individual. If competative alternatives exist you may be able to transition to one of the available alternative products, however you will still be in the same boat. You can't add a feature, and it only the threat you may change to another competitor that drives the supplier to use your license fee to produce software that suits you better. The competitors won't be sharing their code base with each other, so the overall productivity of the solution is less than the theoretical ideal. If the competitors joined forces they may be able to produce a more abundant feature set for a lower cost, however while they compete the customer pays for the competition. Which is worse? An unresponsive monopoly, or a costly war of features? Closed software represents a cost that the customer cannot easily reduce in an area that is different from their core competancies. It behaves like taxation from a supplier that does not need to outlay any more to continue reaping the benefits of its invesment, or a set of suppliers that duplicate efforts at the cost of the combined customer base. Open source may provide a third alternative: A cooperative of customers each working to build features they need themselves, and forking when their interests diverge.

People who are interested in open source are often also interested in open standards. Unlike open source, open standards do promote freedom of choice. Unlike open standards, open source does promote post-choice freedoms. Both have a tendancy to promote community building and shared understandings, and both are important to the health of the software industry moving forwards. The worst combination for overall productivity is and will continue to be a closed source product that uses closed data formats and interaction models.