Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
Thomas Edison

Free, open-source software?

Traditionally software for all purposes was developed internally by businesses and sold to users under restrictive licensing conditions. Some software-based companies, most notably Microsoft, have become very successful with this business model. But there is another alternative and it’s growing rapidly: free / open-source software.

In contrast to the traditional business model, software developed in this way can be modified and distributed to others freely. Effectively the only limitation is that if you modify the software and distribute it your users must be given the same freedoms as you were. This can lead to a form of shared, community development and peer review process which produces software of excellent quality – frequently superior to proprietary equivalents. Some notable examples are the Linux operating system (alternative to Microsoft Windows), Firefox web browser (alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer) and OpenOffice.org (alternative to Microsoft Office).

Not all free, open source software is is high quality – it’s always important to be selective. But wherever there’s a genuine need, people will seek out the best available open-source program to suit that need and improve it further. Each successive improvement widens the gap between the best and the rest, leaving the top quality programs standing out.

But it’s not just about getting top-quality software at a low price. Free software gives your business crucially important freedom:

  • freedom to modify the software to suit your needs
  • freedom to change suppliers if necessary

Proprietary software cannot offer this kind of freedom, and in the long term has the potential to cost you far more than the initial price.

The price of free software

Note that “free” here refers to the freedom to use, modify and redistribute, rather than zero-cost – it’s perfectly possible to charge money for free, open-source software (although it’s usually a nominal fee based on the packaging, materials and perhaps documentation).

Conversely, some software (often called freeware) is given away at zero cost but with certain restrictions, typically disallowing modification, redistribution or commercial use. This is not the same as the free / open source software discussed here and generally won’t offer the same advantages. Businesses releasing software in this way often aim to profit by selling necessary upgrades – a similar business model to regular commercial software.

So how does anyone make money from free software?

There are very successful businesses built around the free software model, typically by providing a convenient package at a reasonable price and then selling service and support. A perfect example is Red Hat – a company that has become very successful selling their own Enterprise version of the free operating system Linux. And if you’re thinking: “So why hasn’t someone put out a free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux?”, they have! It’s called CentOS and it’s very popular, but many people still continue to buy from Red Hat for the service and backup they offer. If anything the availability of a cost-free version has probably improved Red Hat’s business by increasing their user-base.

In its own small way this site is another example – information is freely given for the benefit of all, but the same knowledge forms the basis of the paid services I offer. Participating in the open-source movement and providing such information helps to establish my expertise and reassure potential clients, as well as providing valuable content for search-engine placement.

What’s in it for you?

When you buy hosting for your web-site you can choose between Linux and Microsoft Windows hosting. Unless you need some specific feature only available on Windows you will get better value from Linux hosting – the Linux operating system combined with the Apache web server (both open source) provide an efficient and secure server platform without the licensing costs of Windows. This is why for many years Apache has been the most popular web server on the Internet.

If you also choose to run a web application you can benefit from other open-source software. Whatever your needs there is probably an existing free application that does what you want, or at least something similar that can be modified to suit. And most such applications are themselves built on open-source software, most commonly the PHP programming language and MySQL database (although other, arguably superior, open-source web-development platforms are also available). For more information see the web applications page.

Benefits summary:

  • High-quality solution for many common types of web-site – reduces development time and cost
  • Readily adaptable to provide additional functions specific to your needs
  • Open-source puts you in the driving seat – no lock-in to any single supplier

What are your obligations?

As a user of open-source software you have certain rights and responsibilities, as defined in the license under which the package is released. In all cases you should have the right to use it for your own (commercial or private) purposes, to modify it as you wish (whether or not you make those modifications public) and to redistribute it to others, with or without your modifications. Your responsibilities depend on the particular license used but generally the rules place very few restrictions on users – often no more than leaving existing copyright notices intact.

Probably these rules would only affect you if your business was based on distributing software based on (or somehow connected to) the open source software – in this case you should release your own software under the same license as the program it’s based on or get expert legal advice.

Whether or not it’s a specific requirement, as a matter of common courtesy you should follow any request to give the authors credit – typically a link in the footer of your web-site will be appreciated. Also, any additional “plug-in” software developed for your site should be released under the same license as the application it’s based on, allowing others to benefit from the work done on your site (as you benefit from work done for others). Finally, if you wish to make a further contribution many development groups welcome donations. But this is your choice – just by using and helping to develop the software you are playing your part.