22 July 2010

Thoughts from OSCON 2010

I am currently attending OSCON 2010 (Open Source Conference) in Portland Oregon.   It's a conference for free and open source software enthusiasts, developers, hackers and users of all levels.  There are about 5,000 people attending  this year.  I have met a lot of people here.  Some who are passionate about free software, and some that are learning more about it and how it can provide value to their companies.

It's difficult to over-estimate the impact that free and open source software (FOSS) has had on computing and the world in general.  First, of course, it powers the internet itself.  If you use the internet, you use free and open source software.  From the underlying protocols to email to ftp to web sites, it's all powered by free and open source software.

Practically every major web site you can think of (Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, Foursquare, Google Maps, ... ) make heavy use of free and open source software.  These companies measure traffic in many millions of users and billions of pages per month.

The Apache Web Server for example has been the most popular web server since April 1996 and powers almost 70 percent of all websites on the planet.  There are free and open source operating systems, programming languages, office productivity suites, collaboration suites, web browsers, file and print servers and much more.  There is a free and open source version of practically any software you can think of (and many that you haven't thought of).

And yet, here we are in 2010 and some are still not convinced that open source is suitable for government use.  They are not convinced that this software developed by communities of generous and smart people is reliable and secure or supported enough for their purposes compared to proprietary solutions such as Internet Explorer.  They put all of their trust in single vendor solutions and rely on companies like Microsoft and Oracle, and believe the stories told by such companies about open source software... that story goes something like this:  "It's not enterprise ready... it's of varying quality... there is no support for it... you want to have one throat to choke."

Why aren’t governments using open source software anywhere and everywhere possible?  Why do governments continue to seek out solutions with lock-in to certain vendors?  Why would we continue to believe the big vendors that promise to be nice?  Why do we citizens continue to pay millions upon millions of dollars for software?

Governments are unlike other corporations in that they are making decisions not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of us, the citizens. They don't take that responsibility lightly so decisions are made with great care and they often don't give themselves permission to try new things - or if they do, they do THAT with great care and concern because they don't want to make any mistakes with our resources. Trying something innovative occurs as a risky and so the status quo is long lived and new approaches are discouraged.

Governments appear to be the last hold out of proprietary software and as a result, are missing out on an opportunity to engage with and support the communities that support all of us.  The rest of the world has figured out that free and open source software is the most secure, the most reliable, most innovative and the most cost effective software available.  Leading internet companies that earn millions of dollars in revenues and could choose anything they want for their software needs are choosing open source software.  We should let our governments know that we want them to choose free and open source software too.

The problem with free and open source software is this:  It's hard to make a lot of money with free software.  And, without a lot of money you can't own a public relations team and you can't spend a lot of money on armies of sales people and technical sales people with pre-written business cases and white papers and other collateral convincing people to use your products.  Without a lot of money, you can't schmooze and throw hosted year end parties for your key clients in every major city.

Instead, with free and open source software, you put everything into the product and let the product speak for itself.  You assume that people actually want things to work better.  You build communities of people who are passionate about your product - not because it makes them look good - not because it's easier – not even because it's free - but because it provides exceptional value.

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