What is Open Source Movement?

For the new business

S V Ramu (2001-10-18, Adapted 2002-02-14)

Historically Richard Stallman started GNU with GPL (General Public License) license, in protest to the privatization of UNIX by BELL. GPL says that anybody buying a software will get the source code too, and the right to modify and sell it again, but the seller has to give the same right to their buyer too! This essentially has an avalanche effect, where once a code is under GPL, every new development in it will also be in GPL, and hence will grow, and hence will be more lucrative for future adopters. The essential premise of GNU is that, Software should be Open (or 'free' to reuse). OSS (Open Source Software) need not be free by money, but it is 'free' for further expansion and customization. In fact it was even called as FSF (Free Software Foundation). The justification that these people give for this model is, that Software is not a physical commodity like a Car or TV. In those things, the amount of energy that is spent in creating a copy is very high, so paying for each copy is logical. But, in software once the original overhead cost is recouped, after that each payment for each copy (which just needs a computer, few floppies or CDs, and some time) is criminal, as it lends to disproportionate distribution of wealth. Few people get richer and richer, and rest poorer. Also, in any of these products you can always open and see the internals, and even repair it, or remodel it to suite your purpose. No vendor can stop you from this, maximum they can say is, that if you open certain things then you forgo your right to request for repair services from the original vendor, naturally so. Up to my understanding, I fully agree with this view.

OK, the question is, if software is going to be free, then how are the programmers going to get their payment? What will happen to the multi-billion dollar industry that is existing now, and all those stinkingly rich people roaming around? I feel that only now most of the business people are understanding the sweeping paradigm shift that is happening. The answer is not to ask, how to stop this danger, but how to adopt it. The intelligence is to realize that this is happening for true, and is going to grow. This is something like the Theory of Relativity. When it was found the light's speed is finite and is constant everywhere, the initial question was why it was finite and , and what is the significance of the number 2.997x10^8 m/s. When Einstein came in, he turned the question on its head and asked, 'OK, if light's speed is finite and constant, then what else follows?'. The intelligence here, is to understand the difference between what is fundamental and what is derived. In Einstein's case it was the realization that Light's speed is fundamental and meter and second are not! In case of Red Hat and SUN (the IT Einsteins), it was the realization that OSS is here to stay, and how to capitalize on it.

Many don't realize that OSS is a customer movement, and not a IT manager's idea. It was not started to get more money as it is, but to create more opportunities. OSS was a welcome break for many geeks and geek-customers, who were frustrated by the sky rocketing costs, inadequate service, and above all unapproachable source code (in case the customer wanted to 'repair' the code themselves). OSS increased the software's reliability, life and hence the confidence on it. So, people started adopting it in millions. So much so, even the giants like Microsoft were threatened. In fact, it was the impregnable monopoly of Microsoft that drove many desperate small vendors to break into the market.

During the early days of GNU, there was another license that was in vogue. It was BSD (Berkley Software Distribution) license, which was still more philanthropic in its clauses. It allowed anybody to use their work in any which way they want. The danger of that was realized only when X windows used that code, made some modification, and said that the new version is not 'open' and is proprietary. This inflamed many a contributors to see that people use their own effort, without even repaying anything. This encouraged many a modern OS project to adopt GPL which will ensure that newer advancement made on the original OSS is returned back into the community. In fact another license that is also in vogue, is LGPL (Lesser), which allows for library file (dll) type of products, developer is the user.

Many, including myself, might question the government intervention into Microsoft's business, however 'evil' they might be. But we all should realize that monopoly is dangerous. If it hasn't hit you already, it will soon! If government is unable to curb it, society should. OSS is that conscience check for the insane IT market. It is the great leveler, which forces closed monopoly into open collaboration.

Now again where is the money in it! Sun once said, that the modern e-commerce is one of Micro payments, and Large Volume (audience), and not one of closed small markets. That is where the money is. For example, Java is open and free. Yes, not only the Java development kit is free (though not GPL for various reasons), and also its source is open for your perusal. This radical move, created lot of ardent followers to it. And, that was the key. Once support was there, SUN levied a 3% tax on the relevant revenue. This too not on the end customer but the middle development Kit makers. This is not new, earlier, allowing of software piracy was an unsaid technique to popularize a software (shareware and freeware too was in the same spirit). But OSS took this to its logical conclusion. The hidden trick is, to sell more, you need bigger customer base, to get that you need to sell it low, very low. Of course your revenue might go down, but so will everybody else's will. Sometime if you play it right, the bigger volume will almost compensate for your lowered cost. Remember, OSS doesn't mean 'free' money-wise, it just means that the source is open and the buyer can change it. This changed it all.