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Would you look through a window or go out and play in open?

Freedom of knowledge has always been worshiped across philosophies and religions all over the world. It has been applicable to the most fields of science and technology. This freedom has helped the growth of science, technology, and benefited the human world in every aspect. When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he said "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" He did not try to hide its formula. When you buy a car, nobody stops you from opening its bonnet, fix a few problems, do a few modifications. That, is the freedom of knowledge, applied throughout the branches of science. But when it comes to software, abruptly, everyone starts hiding the source code, the formula behind it. You would be even denied from making similar kind of products, by means of patents. Some of the readers might have already guessed where I am taking this topic to.
[Those who know enough about foss, may skip the following paragraph.]

When you buy a software, it is most likely that you would be denied of few of the following freedoms:
1. You are not provided with the source code (consider it as the formula behind the software, that is necessary for making, modifying and improving that software, readable by most software programmers), neither you are allowed to ask for it, not even trying to re-engineer it.
2. You are not supposed to lend the software to anyone else.
3. Since you do not have the source code, you do not have the freedom to make any changes or improvements to that software, even if you are Bill Gates.
4. Leave alone making improvements and showing them to you friends, or start a garage for servicing these softwares.
Entire software industry has been very obsessive with protecting the secrecy of source codes and denial of these freedoms. It may sound trivial, but this denial of freedoms has sever implications for entire generation. After all software is also a piece of knowledge, like any mathematical or medical formula. Hence there has been a movement against such unethical practices, which we commonly know as Free and Open Source Software movement that strives for the realization of these freedoms, since 1984. For better understanding of rest of the articles, this was a very short introductory background of what open source and free software is all about. For more details refer to websites like gnu.org, opensource.org, fsf.org etc.

In spite of all these good things, during past 26 years of the movement, proprietary softwares have ruled the markets. Except for a few commercial successes, we do not see a general penetration of open source software among common users. Few softwares like Firefox and VLC, may have succeeded, but that hardly contributes to the awareness about the philosophical movement behind it. Why people are so ignorant about their dependence on few companies for the growth of the science behind computers? What is so wrong with accepting a product that ensures all the ethical and essential freedom, for almost no cost? Why this philosophy is yet to find a place in common mans living room?

A major problem here is that, common users do not understand what source code means and why is it so important. This restricts their understanding of the term 'open source' or 'free/freedom/libre' software, and leads to a notion of softwares that are free of cost. They also mistakenly relate it to early periods of computer science evolution when software used to be bundled with hardware without extra explicit charges.

In next few days, I am planning to do an unbiased analysis of the problems associated with open source and whether it has any scope for large, sustainable and inclusive success from the perspectives of business model, development model, marketing and most importantly the users' (consumer) behavior. Please excuse me if I am not able to express the humbleness of this attempt in words. Ideas, suggestions and feedbacks are always welcome!

[P.S. For simplicity and also as a personal preference I am using the terms 'free' and 'open source' interchangeably.]
[P.S. Thanks to RMS for giving us the analogy of car.]

Comments

  1. well written

    but i get a feeling that u think charging for software and then not giving the source code is something criminal..

    I would like to differ... Building an IT Based product requires you to hire best brains, who dont come cheap... Take MS for example... They hire the top of most college with more than decent salary right at start.. They should have a way to recover that! right? If they disclose the source code, we wont buy the next MS product that comes..

    Google also hires the best brains... but its revenue are from google ads, which by many are considered unethical.. btw, did you knew Google has decent stake in Mozilla..?

    Its just my viewpoint... But I did like your article.. I hope you dont mind if I refer it to in some blogs...

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Nirupama, thanks.
    @Sanyam, thanks for making such a good comment. I am fully aware of the problems you've highlighted. Nowhere so far I have denied problems associated with Open Source model in terms of business and economics. I hope to discuss and analyze them in detail in forthcoming posts.
    Btw, there's a large community of the opinion that, even if open source is not the economically profitable model, the proprietary model is surely unethical.

    Meanwhile, for a quick thought, considering the amount of piracy that goes on for proprietary software, sharing of software in its binary form hasn't affected the revenues of companies like microsoft anyway. Which forces me to think, there's lot more than the direct price of the software that makes the software business run. Nevertheless, there are plenty of business models successfully existing with open source. Hope to discuss these things soon.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes, there are business models running on open source model... But Linux based systems are not considered to be as stable as that of Java based... I mean, you look at the systems of all the top companies, and you will know wat I am talking of..

    Good things always come at a price... Consumers always have a choice.. whether they want to go for customizable Linux, or flashy and easy-to-use Windows...

    ReplyDelete
  4. @sanyam, I would have partially agreed with your previous comment, but not this one. I don't see a comparison between linux-based and java-based systems. One is OS kernel, another is just a language.

    Apart from that, whether it is stability, scalability, performance or security, today's Linux-based system would beat other Operating systems on any day. Btw, you must be aware that this years chaos of computerized CAT was caused because of the windows based servers of CAT exam had a sever virus attack, and hence the IIMs are considering going open source henceforth. As Linus Torvalds would say "Sex and software are best when they are free." :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Sanyam, forgot to mention that Java is also Open Source by now.

    ReplyDelete
  6. By Linux i meant LAMP technology for coding... I dont know the details of CAT exam... so cant comment... but it was a fiasco for sure

    Yet, My major point is that systems which are not free have their advantages... That is the reason most of population prefer windows over linux as OS... even though its unstable and costly!!

    And if it is something unique with windows, then they have every right to protect it!

    ReplyDelete
  7. If you ask me, I am myself not completely convinced with the business viability of open source, but one thing is sure, that proprietary model is unethical.

    If a software is dealing with my data and devices, it is my right to know how it does so. Freedom of people is more important than the profits of a corporate.

    I would not talk specifically about Microsoft (I am talking about proprietary model that is obsessive of hiding source code), but there's nothing unique about windows as a software. Its success largely attributes to marketing and other environmental factors. BTW, the topic I started was actually about the marketing scenario of open source.

    If IBM, Red Hat, Sun (Java), Google (android), Nokia (Symbian OS) can not only touch millions of lives but also be profitable to the extent of raising billions of dollars while supporting and using open source model, there shouldn't be any problem why others cannot do it. I will keep the rest of the business related analysis for future posts.

    ReplyDelete

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