On the 18th March this year, there was a "Commercial" supplement to the Irish Times celebrating Microsoft's 20 years of operations in Ireland. In it, there was a piece featuring Cathal Friel, Chairperson of the Irish Software Association, who made some rather disparaging comments about "open source" and those who develop Free Software.

Many on the fora I contribute to (ILUG, the Irish Linux Users' Group and IFSO, the Irish Free Software Organisation) were offended by the comments. Some of the responses involved writing to the editor of the Irish Times to complain about the bias shown in the article. This is a fair attempt to set the record straight, but I knew it would be unlikely to succeed because we're dealing with a commercial supplement: the Irish Times was probably paid a great deal of money by Microsoft and its partners. Wouldn't do to offend that revenue stream, now would it?

Therefore, I decided to send a letter to Mr. Friel himself, objecting to the piece. Below is the text of that letter, re-edited into the format of a response piece. I wanted to remove any personal identifying information and to remove the second-person grammar. In the letter, however, I asked Mr. Friel to consider his statement and, if he wished, to respond to my correspondence.

On Holy Thursday, as I was stuck in traffic on what turned out to be a gruelling 10-hour journey to Cork from Dublin, I received a 'phone call from Kathryn Raleigh, Director of the ISA, in reponse to my letter.

As I was unable to take notes at the time, what follows is a memory of the conversation. She told me that the ISA would like to apologise to me for any offense that I took from the comments. She said that the first the ISA heard of the comments was after the piece was published and the Mr. Friel was not speaking with the ISA's authority. She told me that the ISA had indeed conducted some sort of analysis of the market regarding licensing and the "proprietary" versus Free Software competition, and that the ISA's position on the matter is not to have a position. She gave me the impression that Mr. Friel has been told that he was out of line. She asked me to convey the ISA's regrets to my colleagues, and then not to make a big deal of the matter. As she said that she would be putting her response into a letter for me, I decided to wait for that before I put up this story. At the time of writing, 3-and-a-half weeks later, that letter hasn't arrived.

I did say in my original letter that I would be publishing my response, though, and here it is.

On the 18th of March, in a supplement to the Irish Times, it was attributed to Cathal Friel, Chairperson of the Irish Software Association that he believed "the open source movement is actually stifling innovation, because fewer programmers will develop software without the financial incentive of success." The piece generated some comment on both the mailing lists of the Irish Linux Users' Group (ILUG - [[http://www.linux.ie/]]) and the Irish Free Software Organisation (IFSO - [[http://ifso.ie/]]). Though I am not representing them with this response, I am a member of both; in the case of IFSO, I am a paid-up member. Both organisations received the comments with dismay. In a country that tries to foster entrepreneurship and innovation, there is now a community that has good cause to regard the Irish Software Association with suspicion or even contempt.

Who am I?

I am a software engineer and director of my own company. I am also an enthusiastic user and promoter of what I call Free Software and what others refer to as "Free and Open Source Software" and others as "Open Source." I have been using Free Software since around 1995 - the NCSA httpd web server and the Mosaic web browser. Where possible, I have attempted to use only Free Software in my home computing environments, and as such, I am a paying customer of MandrakeSoft [now named Mandriva], buying their Linux-based operating system. Note: I am a paying customer.

The opportunities of being a director of a company are regularly being made clear to me, and while my main source of income is from providing software development services to clients, I am in the process of developing a utility that will provide a comprehensive database development environment sitting on any of a number of database engines, and which I hope to release as a Free Software product. There are many reasons why I am doing this, but the opportunity to innovate in my own sitting room is high on that list. Indeed, I hope that it will make money for me, but should the proverbial bus come along, it's my intention that something worthwhile and useful will be left behind for others to use.

Irish Software Association members and Free Software

But there's more to it than that. A quick glance at the website for the Irish Software Association shows up a number of companies who are members and who produce or distribute Free or Open Source Software. Some are:

  1. America OnLine: sponsors and commercial beneficiaries of the Mozilla suite of web applications. While the development organisation for these products is now outside AOL's control, AOL still uses the Mozilla browser as the base for its Netscape browser, and the rumour is that the next Netscape release will be based on Mozilla's Firefox.
  2. Apple: Their current, and popular, operating system, Mac OS X, is based on the FreeBSD UNIX operating system. The operating system also includes a large set of Free Software applications and utilities that can be seen at [[http://www.apple.com/opensource/]].
  3. Computer Associates: Its most notable contribution to the Free Software community has been the recent release of their database engine Ingres under a license that is approved by the Open Source Initiative.
  4. Hewlett Packard: a company that supports the GNU/Linux operating system, and by employing, for example, Jeremy Allison of the SAMBA project, sponsors Free Software development.
  5. IBM: Being the subject of the most frivolous and nasty law suit ever to involve Free Software, IBM has clearly demonstrated its Free Software credentials by not being bullied into settling with The SCO Group. If that doesn't show that it's serious, then the amount of money it invested in Linux development over the last 5 years should highlight something.
  6. Microsoft: Yes believe it or not, Microsoft is a Free Software distributor and producer. Examples include Microsoft's Windows Services for UNIX, which are based on a number of the GNU utilities and are available under the GPL, their Computational Clustering Technical Preview Toolkit includes another GPL'd utility called PLAPACK (Parallel Linear Algebra Package), and the TCP/IP implementation used in all Windows products was famously lifted, legally, from BSD Unix.
  7. Novell: It now owns the SuSE Linux brand and is also refusing to be bullied by The SCO Group, and refusing to allow The SCO Group to appropriate all Linux and UNIX technologies unto themselves.
  8. Oracle Corporation: Aside from the fact that all Oracle UNIX-based development now takes place on Linux-based systems, their most famous use of Free Software is the Oracle Application Server, which is based on the Apache web server. Also, Oracle Corporation is majority owner of Miracle Linux Corporation ([[http://www.miraclelinux.com/english/corp.html]]) which is developing a Linux-based operating system for the Asian market.
  9. Sun Microsystems: A company who claims to be founded on Open Source philosophy, its most famous Free Software product is the Java Desktop System, which is a Linux-based desktop operating system and which was sold to AIB with great fanfare last year.

Aside from the fact that all these companies are members of the organisation Mr. Friel was claiming to speak for and the fact that they produce Free Software products, two other commonalities should be noted: they are all companies that pride themselves in their reputation for innovation, and they all make money from their Free Software products.

Non-members

And then there're the companies who aren't members of the Irish Software Association, but who are making money from Free Software, and significantly so. Some examples are:

  1. MandrakeSoft [now Mandriva]: provider of the Mandrake Linux operating system product, it filed for bankruptcy in 2003. Last year, however, it posted a profit, and earlier this year, it got back into the acquisition market by forming a deal with Connectiva (another Linux-based OS development company) in Brazil.
  2. Red Hat: the most prominent of Linux-based OS developers and distributors. To show how well it is doing, its revenue for the second fiscal quarter for 2005 was up 60% on that for the same period in 2004.
  3. MySQL A.B.: The Swedish company that produces the Free Software database engine, mysql, and related technologies sells its products using what's known as a dual-licensing arrangement: if the customer wants more than what is offered with the GPL'd product, a commercial license can be used, for which the customer will pay. A privately owned company, its list of customers includes big players like AOL, Hewlett Packard, Google, Lucent, Siemens and Caterpillar. The first two are Irish Software Association members.
  4. Google: The largest search engine available on the web uses customised Linux-based operating systems to power their dominance of its market. It uses these technologies not because they are inexpensive (you can be sure that what they do to customise the operating systems is not a low-cost exercise), but because the base is one of high technology. Google is particularly attractive for Free Software developers who want to "innovate" because:
    • The opportunity to work with genuinely innovative technologies: Google engineers, for example, developed the only 64GiB block-sized filesystem for Linux, GFS.
    • Developers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time on personal projects that can become new Google services: Google Maps and Google Weather are examples of projects that started out as developers' ideas worked on in this time and are now becoming services for Google's customers.

Other Free Software products

And then there are those Free Software products, though not produced by for-profit organisations, which are making waves in the industry.

  1. Apache: the most famous, it is the most deployed web server in the world, holding a greater market share than all its competitors combined: nearly 70%, according to the March 2005 netcraft survey: [[http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html]]
  2. Mozilla and related products: While not the first web browser to do so, Mozilla is the first truly cross-platform browser to introduce features such as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing. Where it did innovate is in the "find as you type feature", which improves my productivity immensely.
  3. OpenOffice.org: the basis of Sun's StarOffice product, this is a full-featured Office productivity suite of applications which is available for a multitude of operating system environments. My two favourite features from this suite are that one can export a text document to a PDF file and a presentation document to a Macromedia Flash file. This means that I can send documents to other users without them needing OpenOffice.org or StarOffice to view them. The main competition does not have these features, to my knowledge.

One of the most promising aspect of these products is that they are all innovative, and at the same time they provide their users free access to these innovations and force their competitors to innovate as well. For example, despite saying before the new year that their customers don't want tabbed browsing, it's now rumoured that version 7 of Microsoft Internet Explorer will have that feature.

FUD

One of the main problems that Free Software poses to the "traditional" software development model is that it's woefully difficult to compete with free. On the face of it, this may be true, but it's not a correct representation of the situation. For example, the "Free" in Free Software is often misrepresented as meaning free-of-cost, when it actually means free-for-use, or as others put it: "Free speech, not free beer." Sometimes this misrepresentation is deliberate, in order to scare those who are not wholly familiar with the market. This is an example of the standard FUD strategies, used by major players in the market, which include others such as:

  • Labelling Free Software developers and promoters as communist: this is one that failed some years ago because successful companies like Red Hat and IBM were showing that Free Software was a platform that companies could use to make a lot of money. This strategy has raised its ugly head again recently when Bill Gates of Microsoft branded those who oppose1 software patents as communists.
  • GPL is viral: Many who oppose Free Software have said that the GPL is dangerous, specifically viral. This is countered by two clarifications:
    • Using GPL software places no responsibilities on companies to distribute their own products using the GPL. Oracle Corporation is an example of this, developing all its products on Linux-based systems, while still distributing them under its own licensing schemes.
    • If a company wants to use code developed by some one else, unless the code is in the public domain, the terms and conditions of original developer must be abided by. This is the strength of copyright law and has been used to great effect by many companies, included members of the Irish Software Association. GPL software is just the same. If a company doesn't want to be bound by the GPL, it doesn't have to incorporate GPL code in its product.
  • Asserting that the GPL is against the US constitution: The SCO Group tried this one most recently and was laughed at.
  • Saying that Free Software is counter to innovation and deprives companies of opportunities to make money. This is what was attributed to Mr. Friel in the Irish Times piece. I and many others, including some of the largest companies in the world, would dispute this for all the reasons outlined in this response. It is a most egregious accusation. Politicians like to think that innovation is good (it is!); that players in a market who appear to be successful (and who claim to be innovative) know what they are talking about (those who dominate the market do, but in a "speaking with forked tongue" sense) and those politicians will legislate to protect these "innovators". The theory fails on the simple fact that all that is the most successful on the market is not necessarily the most technologically innovative. The VHS-Betamax debacle should be a lesson to us all. That some of the most innovative software products on the market are Free Software products is an embarrassment to large companies trying to protect an artificial market share.

ENODE - a database development environment (ultimately, I hope)

As mentioned earlier, I am developing a utility which I hope to release as a Free Software project when it gets to a point that it can be used by others, particularly those who will help test and develop it further. To my knowledge, I am developing the first LISP-based graphical user interface for SQL databases independent of any particular database implementation (i.e. as long as the DB supports standard SQL, ODBC or JDBC, my utility will support it). While there are products that provide this type of functionality, some of them cost a lot of money - an important consideration for a small software development operation - and none of them offers the combination of being developed in LISP and free for me to tinker with. Even if there is such an alternative that conforms to my requirements, I have been developing this in my spare time for some years now and will continue to do so until I get bored with it. I also believe that I am innovating in the sense that I am developing the guts of this myself. As a project, I regard this as worthwhile beyond the product: it allows me to develop and improve skills in technologies that can improve my employment prospects, even if my own utility doesn't generate revenue for me.

Of course, if it wasn't for Free Software, this project would not be a possibility: the cost of building a development environment, including operating system, database engines, programming language compiler, etc. at prices currently charged by the main players in the non-Free Software market would be prohibitive for me as a lone developer. If there was no Free Software, there would be far less software innovation altogether, because the barrier to entry for software developers with ideas would be far higher than it currently is.

Competition is good

As is constantly said by capitalists around the world, competition is good for the market. From a simplistic perspective, one of the compelling drivers of a free market is offering customers a product or service that is either cheaper or better than the competitions'. In software, there is, however, the notion of "first-to-market" which complicates things. The Free Software standard bearers - Linux, Apache, the BSD UNIXes, the Mozilla suite and related products, and the GNU utilities - all compete with their competing products on both quality and price. While specifics may be debated, there's no one around now that will assert that any of those applications are of poor quality. Similarly, while the cost-of-ownership argument rages around what costs you choose to include and exclude, in general, these products compete well on the grounds of cost too. There are many Irish software developers that contribute to these and other Free Software projects, and given the nature of Free Software with respect to the licensing, they and others could easily make a stab of building businesses around supporting, enhancing and providing other services for these products. An example, highly hypothetical and speculative, that I like is that of TG4 considering the office productivity suite it uses. Let's say TG4 wants to use OpenOffice.org instead of Microsoft Office. One of the problems with this is that OpenOffice.org hasn't a great deal of support for Irish. The possibilities open to TG4 are

  • to localise OpenOffice.org to Irish itself,
  • to ask (i.e. contractually) an already existing company to perform the localisation or,
  • to encourage a budding entrepreneur to take on the project as a new venture.

All of these are possible because OpenOffice.org is a Free Software project. A producer of a non-Free Software product could tell2 TG4 to take a hike, leaving it at a loss.

Services are good, too

Following on from that, the piece in the Irish Times also mentioned Mr. Friel's belief that the only opportunities in Free Software are in the provision of services. While this is not completely correct, I am of the opinion that the greater opportunities are, indeed, in the provision of services on Free Software products. Many Irish companies operate in this space and there's room for more. Having worked in software development since 1994, five-and-a-half-years for a large corporation, the one thing I can say is that the most successful software companies are those who have more staff working in sales, consulting, support, implementation and many other roles than in pure software development. To me, there seems to be quite a large demand for services on software once that software becomes established and stable.

Free Software is here to stay

The Irish Software Association has a working group focusing on "IP Licensing Trends." I expect that it has a clear view of what the trends are in Free Software licensing, or that it is developing such a view, if not. In light of the fact that many companies are succeeding in the market by developing or supporting Free Software, I would hope that its members are not misled by the prejudice and bias that many in the market hold towards Free Software. A simple fact to keep in mind is that Free Software would not generate so much invective and scaremongering if it was not a viable alternative.

The Free Software world has its faults. One of them, in my opinion, is that its message is often uncoordinated. I'm sure some would say that this long response contributes to that fault: I am representing neither ILUG nor IFSO, but am presenting my personal opinion. However, the ideals and ethics of Free Software development are laudable and have attracted many software developers to them. As a consequence, many users and customers are now benefiting from better competition in the market, improved product quality, innovation and lower prices. Also, users can benefit from the freedom to do whatever they want with the Free Software products they acquire. Once a critical mass is achieved in this market, there will be an explosion of companies developing and supporting Free Software products in Ireland. These companies may want to join the Irish Software Association in order to seek the benefits it offers. Does the Irish Software Association really wish alienate them? As is reported in the piece in the Irish Times, the Free Software models are here to stay: can the Irish Software Association really afford to offend those who want to exploit them?

Footnotes:

1
When asked in an interview by CNet about software patents recently, Mr. Gates responded by talking about "intellectual property" and then said anyone who didn't support new "IP" laws is a communist. The overwhelming point to remember, though it's not the point of this letter, is that software copyright is a different beast to software patents, and the Free Software community and development model rely on the former and totally oppose the latter.
2
This is not so fanciful: Microsoft refused to localise its Office suite on Mac OS X to Hebrew, and as a result lost a customer.