Free as in Free Beer

by Redhuan D. Oon

According to Richard Stallman, the founder of Free Software Movement, Free Software is Free as in Freedom or Free speech but not free beer.

He stresses on the principle that you are free to take software like you would with any piece of knowledge and change to improve it and then give it back for others to do the same. It is not a foreign idea as almost all real knowledge is exchanged and improved on this way since time immemorial. But software patents came along during the 80s where Richard Stallman was working in his university lab and some new patent stopped him in his tracks by classifying their code as proprietary and not open to modification. Stallman has to code his own printer driver which avoided also his need to pay the license cost. But it is not a question of money been evil and Stallman in fact encourages developers to charge for their software as long as they provide the code for the freedom to change it back without removing the copyright notice nor license scheme. This is a strange concept but not so if you consider an engineer or doctor or lecturer using free information all the time and they do not charge for the use of the information they also created but merely charge for their time and expertise.

There are companies that offers services around Free and Open Source software that do not hide the code but provide warranty, assurance, and support when using the code. This is very fine because unlike engineering knowledge, software application knowledge is a difficult art and the statistics show that 92% of ERP software implementations face failures to meet its planned objectives.

But this concept of opening up the code still remains a faithful question by proprietary companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP that if the code is open, it is in essence ‘Free Beer’. This is due to the fact that they make a living out of selling the code. But this pose important issues. For example, if you are to buy a house, you get to stay in it, modify it and rent it out or just let your mother in law to stay in it for free. But you cannot do that with Microsoft Windows. After paying for it, the license agreement says that you are to use it only for yourself and on one computer and you are not allowed to let another person use it even though you are not making money out of it. And if you no longer use it, you basically have to destroy it to avoid others from breaking that agreement.

So from the fair use principle of it, this sounds very unfair. But wait. Software vendors argue that they put in a lot of money to produce software and so they should apply this rule. Moreover they are not forcing anyone to pay them but at their own free will. This fact must be true or else SAP or Microsoft will not be very rich companies.

But today people demand the freedom of choice. They like to look at alternatives. which is getting to be the opposite model. Free and Open Source software is becoming more than a pain in the neck for proprietary software companies. They are thriving and viral in its growth with the sister concept of offering free service such as what Hotmail or Yahoo! did. Giving free beer away has made billions for category leaders in the Web. Free is the best marketing tool on the Internet because it is like free advertising, even better, you do not have to pay a single cent for people to download and use your stuff and thus effectively brand you sky high and possibly displace the giants. But brand leadership is a slim spot on the top of the mountain. There can only be one Linux, JBoss, Apache, or one Google or one Twitter. They already grabbed those spots.

So would you still want to give Free Beer away? The answer is “You have no choice”. Either you give it away or someone else will and grab more top positions. Twitter is one stupid idea that defines its own blue ocean as if by mistake. Why would anyone type only 140 characters? But it worked. Twitter is now worth billions and they are not for sale. Not yet.

SAP now made their database free and open source. So did IBM with lots of investments in Linux and Eclipse. So will Oracle and Microsoft claimed also. In fact these companies will be the first ones to book a booth in an Open Source exhibition. It makes business sense if free beer makes money to them.

Yes, this means you can get Free Beer. You can download expensive software such as for implementing ERP in your company to automate your boring redundant backroom processes and even do it at a very sophisticated level. Softwares that are free for download and use right away are Compiere (ERP/CRM), Pentaho (Business Inteligence Reporting tools), Palo (BI on Excel), Talend (Data integration), Asterisk (VOIP telephony) and the list goes on and on. These are successful vendors offering services around the softwares they made free. In fact they stand to make more money as the community of users and itch scratching developers send back bug reports and even patches to improve the softwares further.

This is the 21st century and this is how all software one day will be written. They will not only give freedom but they also give away free beer. But hang on. Don’t rush your mouse to click on the ‘download’ button just yet. There are big issues with free software particularly for business applications such as ERP. Follow this story in the next issue.

>> German Translation

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