The Open Source Ecosystem

Richard Stallman was a leading proponent of free software.

However, the concept of free software is similar to the concept of free air, free water, free lumber, and free healthcare. When there is a vast quantity of it, it seems free. When we depend on it, we believe it should be a human right.  And software is sufficiently abstract and conceptual that it tempts us to believe it might indeed be free.

Software can be thought of as the fruit of a tree. Often, a tree yields fruit seemingly for free. Yet, we know that significant energy and resources go into the production of fruit, and that environmental conditions have an enormous effect on the yield. Thousands of years of agriculture have taught us how to nurture a tree, how to provide optimal environment and optimal quantities and quality of energy and resources to produce the ideal fruit. There have been countless trial-and-error experiments, including farms that went bankrupt due to mismanagement of environment, energy, and resources.

I submit that agriculture is far ahead of software development (agri-culture ahead of cyber-culture) in this regard.

Trees continue to reproduce by yielding fruit without human intervention, and this can be a source of wonder, but we no longer believe that fruit, especially top-quality edible fruit, is “free”.

Economic factors necessarily create significant costs along the line between conception and productive use of everything that was thought to be (or that was thought ought to be) free, including software. These costs include distribution, packaging, marketing, installation, customization, operation, and maintenance. Human beings necessarily perform some manual activities from conception to productive use of software. There are costs for providing them with life’s necessities.

It is tempting to believe that these costs are “external” or negligible, but it is foolish to believe so. They are no more external or negligible than the costs of providing fertilizer and water to trees in a farmer’s orchard.

I am not saying that free or open-source software should not exist. Indeed, buyers and sellers must question and justify payment for software when open-source equivalents, meeting the same requirements, are freely available. But by understanding why and how those equivalents exist, we can make this justification rationally. (Note: “buyers” does not refer only to end-users of software, but to developers who integrate software–operating systems, databases, web servers, etc.–into new products.)

Tags: Business, Economics, Philosophy

Updated at: 28 June 2010 5:06 PM

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