When I teach, one of the most common questions about OpenOffice.org is "How can it be free?"
I answer with a hodgepodge of topics from "Sun wanted to piss off Bill Gates" to "you know how your printer is really cheap but the cartridges are more expensive?" to "well, when geeks go home and want to relax, they don't play volleyball, they code." And I vow to read The Cathedral and the Bazaar when I get home.
I'm traveling soon so I'll be able to fulfill that vow before my next training class. Before I delve into the official or popular views of open source software, however, I'm going to open up the chest of my own opinions. Here's one thought. Software development is an odd combination of useful for mass numbers of people, and fun for others to develop. Usually, things that are fun enough to do voluntarily are not that useful to other people. There might not be as much of a benefit to millions of people from group collaboration in, say, acting or singing or lounging around in the back yard -- other more traditionally enjoyable activities. But there are enough people who enjoy, or are significantly rewarded by in nonmonetary forms, software development, to create a lot of usable software. And it's far more useful for the rest of us to have a free office suite, than for a bunch of people around the world to have united to read some great novels while sipping gin and tonics. ;>
So this is one way it's possible for open source software to be, metaphorically, delicious and calorie-free because, well, it's different. The context and assumptions of the nature of software development are different than other products and services.
Then there's others' opinions that I want to share and expand on. I came across this article/blog which I thought was another interesting angle on open source from a larger standpoint.
It's not really hot news; it's about the keyword that characterizes Web 2.0 and all the associated buzzwords: participation. But I haven't talked about that theme much on this blog, having generally focused on specifics like exactly what to choose to make an inter-subdocument cross reference show up. Thus I'd like to emphasize the link between OpenOffice.org and the big ideas.
The article mentions the attempts to create an online encyclopedia.
"Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales were running into problems on the other side of the Atlantic. Together they were working on Nupedia, an encyclopedia they planned to make available to the public, free of charge, via the Internet. They considered it the ultimate democratization of knowledge. Sanger and Wales found renowned academics who were prepared to write entries for the site as well as to edit others’ contributions. Great plan. But it had one drawback: It was impossible to get anything done. Two years in, Nupedia included only 24 articles. “The pace was horrible,” Wales says now."
And then they discovered wikis. They opened up the process and now of course wikipedia is the first place many of us look for information if we just want a definition, some background and examples....in fact, an online encyclopedia entry.
Open source information goes much farther back than that. The Professor and the Madman chronicles the development of the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, begun in the late 1890s. Where did many of the entries, many excellent entries come from? An inmate of Broadmoor who was imprisoned for murder. On the up side, he was still a very intelligent man, and of course had plenty of time to write definitions. I don't want to imply anything about today's software developers ;> with this analogy, but simply to point out that a venerable, dignified, and very old mainstay of our culture was developed with participation from many outside sources rather than an officially appointed and restricted group.
Let's keep in mind that the odds of any software project successfully producing the desired outcome, on schedule, are roughly on par with going on a diet before your high school reunion and getting to your ideal weight in time. The structure of a standard project doesn't seem to be that much of a benefit. "It's impossible to put a precise number on the failure rate," says Karl Fogel, author of Producing Open Source Software, "but anecdotal evidence from over a decade in open source, some casting around on SourceForge.net, and a little Googling, all point to the same conclusion: the rate is extremely high, probably on the order of 90 to 95 percent."
Obviously, open source software can fail too. But my point is that developing outside the cube farm is not the risk.
Free software seems odd to a lot of people, I think, because it's just new. We get free entertainment through TV; free information all over the place on the Internet; and overpriced $5 1000-calorie macchiatos while we're enjoying the free stuff.
The simplicity and rigidity of money = value , in an environment of better communication and participation, can't be applied as uniformly anymore. Barter, whether actual or less obvious, has a role too: you're bartering your willingness to dig a little on the Internet for information instead of being handed a thick manual. (And for those who have read through thick software manuals, sometimes they're worth the price of the software....sometimes they're not.)
I've been sitting here, staring across the coffee shop (past my $2 iced tea) trying to come up with a splendid, eloquent final sentence that ties everything together. So far, no luck. I will go with something like "Open source is more normal than you think, and was providing many valuable, reliable, free products long before Linux came along."