Moving to Freedom, .Org(on)

Brian Behlendorf: Open Source as a Business Strategy

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I just finished reading Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, which is a collection of essays about free and open source software edited by Chris DiBona (and others) and published by O’Reilly in January of 1999. It’s an interesting snapshot of free software at the time and it still reads very well today. Much of it is well-tread ground, but there were things new to me, and there is this good passage explaining why we should prefer free and open software and standards over proprietary platforms (emphasis added by me):

There are businesses built upon the model of owning software platforms. Such a business can charge for all use of this platform, whether on a standard software installation basis, or a pay-per-use basis, or perhaps some other model. Sometimes platforms are enforced by copyright; other times platforms are obfuscated by the lack of a written description for public consumption; other times they are evolved so quickly, sometimes other than for technical reasons, that others who attempt to provide such a platform fail to keep up and are perceived by the market as “behind” technologically speaking, even though it’s not a matter of programming.

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Such a business model, while potentially beneficial in the short term for the company who owns such a platform, works against the interests of every other company in the industry, and against the overall rate of technological evolution. Competitors might have better technology, better services, or lower costs, but are unable to use those benefits because they don’t have access to the platform. On the flip side, customers can become reliant upon a platform and, when prices rise, be forced to decide between paying a little more in the short run to stick with the platform, or spending a large quantity of money to change to a different platform, which may save them money in the long run.

Computers and automation have become so ingrained and essential to day-to-day business that a sensible business should not rely on a single vendor to provide essential services. Having a choice of service means not just having the freedom to choose; a choice must also be affordable. The switching cost is an important aspect to this freedom to choose. Switching costs can be minimized if switching software does not necessitate switching platforms. Thus it is always in a customers’ interests to demand that the software they deploy be based on non-proprietary platforms.

This is difficult to visualize for many people because classic economics, the supply and demand curves we were all taught in high school, are based on the notion that products for sale have a relatively scalable cost—that to sell ten times as much product, the cost of raw goods to a vendor typically rises somewhere on the order of ten times as well. No one could have foreseen the dramatic economy of scale that software exhibits, the almost complete lack of any direct correlation between the amount of effort it takes to produce a software product and the number of people who can thus purchase and use it.

Brian Behlendorf, “Open Source as a Business Strategy