Free software and the future

So this past weekend I had (hopefully!) my last Linux Australia face to face meeting — handed over the chequebook to the new treasurer, passed on some advice, and whatnot — which more or less ends my major existing responsibilities to the open source world. That happened to more or less coincide with a tweet from some random guy that was retweeted by some other random guy I follow, which sums up one of my concerns about free software these days:

Open Source is fighting the last war. It is a sideshow in cloud/online. What matters now is Open Data.

9:43 PM Mar 13th via UberTwitter

That happens to be from a Software-as-a-Service guy, so it’s a bit talking-his-own-book, but it still rings true I think. Consider to Canonical’s recent attempts building their SaaS storage application or their music store, and the “exciting news on the Linux front” that Ubuntu has a new theme that’s purple instead of brown and the window buttons have moved to the top-left.

Sure, open source is still interesting — but mostly because it’s a cheap/free way to build proprietary apps provided over the web, that you can then charge for on a monthly basis.

That does have a bunch of advantages. For vendors, piracy’s no longer much of a concern, because you’re not even giving people a copy of your binaries, let alone source. It’s easy to keep contact with your users because they interact with your computers every time they use your software. It’s easy to distribute bug fixes, because they only need to go on your own computers. It’s easy to duplicate bugs, because you can track every interaction every user has with your system. And you can sell direct, so you can charge retail prices for your product rather than wholesale ones, and change prices immediately rather than worrying about lag as your distributors deal with old stock. And there’s no incentive to make random changes, because your users are already paying you every month, they don’t need to be forced to buy a new version.

For users, you’ve got a single point of contact for support — you can’t have your application vendor telling you its your OS or hardware that’s the problem, because it’s all running on their systems. It’s easy to use any program you want on any system you have, because all you need is a free web browser and maybe a couple of common plugins. It’s easy to scale, because you only need a username/password to verify you’ve paid for the product, not a bunch of license codes or a hardware dongle to prove you’re not a pirate.

That’s not without its problems: it’s somewhat harder to manage data export this way — vendors can’t just leave it to users to extract their data from the files the program uses, they’ve got to provide an export UI, and if there’s no export UI users have to go through screenscraping. SaaS products can be changed or removed at any time, and users have absolutely no recourse — you can’t keep on using old versions of Google Docs in the same way you can use old versions of Microsoft Office, if you happened to not appreciate the latest set of changes.

And, of course, there’s very little opportunity to customise anything. You can’t make it run complete on your laptop so you can use it when you don’t have internet, you can’t tweak the source code and rebuild it to make it work a little better, and you certainly can’t find and fix bugs that are getting in your way.

But for almost everyone, those are things they don’t do anyway. So with all the advantages (for both you and your users) of grabbing existing free stuff like Linux, Apache and MySQL and writing proprietary webapps on top of it, why would you release your killer new idea as actual free software?

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