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Linux Isn't Free

Week of September 14, 2003

Linux isn't free. And about the only people getting riled up at such a statement are the ones who cost the rest of us so much.

Linus says his OS is free, and yet SCO would beg to differ. Rarely are software products donated to the public domain, and the Unix name costs - AT&T sold it, and it got bounced around like a hot potato. And although Linus says SCO are smoking crack when they contend that over 829,000 lines of code are stolen, it's hard to picture Linus and his cohorts churning out that much code on their own. Understand: 829,000 lines of code is a lot of code - the first release of Unix was only 13,500 lines of code, and that code was written by two of the most brilliant programmers of our times, and it took them several years to do it.

Programmers have to pay bills and feed mouths, and a pat on the back from a ne'er-do-well slash-dotter won't help. Somewhere somehow these people have to be paid for their labour, and Linux and open source are not doing it.

Not that there aren't a lot of good open source products out there. Perhaps the best of these is Apache, the far and away best web server ever - and it's completely free, and it's used by the majority of sites on the Internet, and the Internet would be a better place if more sites used it - and dropped that condemned (and ridiculous) Microsoft IIS. But the Apache gurus have money - they get it because their names are well-known in conjunction with the Apache project, and corporations pay them big bucks to come in and do the old 'consulting' thing.

So is it with Eric Raymond: Eric might claim he's not rich, but he's got a book out, he's been on the payroll of VA Linux, he tours all over the place as a public speaker - he's got a pretty good life. And all he did was say software should be free.

Actually he didn't say that: He said it should be 'open'. 'Open' does not imply 'free', even if most slash-dotters infer it. Slash-dotters couldn't care less if the software was open - they just want it to be free. And if they say anything else, they're lying.

Linus has a good life too: Starting Linux while still a student is a perfect thing. You're not supposed to have an income yet anyway, and there's the student loan to support you. So instead of doing ordinary school work, why not create a new operating system? Why not indeed? Aren't there a lot of university students out there, with too much time on their hands despite the heavy course load?

As Peter Coffee said, there's a difference between the interested IT aficionado and the IT professional. You're not going to find IBM giving their products away for free, even if they're using a lot of Linux (and IBM have their own AIX, developed long before Linux, and AIX is definitely not free). IBM are traditionally the most expensive vendor in the business, and Linux is hardly going to change anything. IBM will do what they need to crush Microsoft if they can, but becoming a cheap vendor is not even considered.

Economists will tell you that the supermarket is an excellent place to study human behaviour. On every shelf, for every item, there are brand names targeted for specific demographic groups. At the bottom of the food chain you will find the brand with the outrageously low price. Product quality is abysmal, and only by cutting corners beyond the acceptable can the company make such an unbelievable offer. And yet there are customers for their products. Economists will tell you to always look to the second cheapest brand name: This is where production efficiency can be stressed, while quality is still kept high. But you'd never convince the slash-dotters of this: They'll still go for the el cheapo brand.

Shop owners know the value of the penny. They know that if they can make their prices a single red cent cheaper than the competition, people will go miles out of their way to shop with them. Online, at kernel.org, you have the minions who are determined that no matter how much hardship comes their way, no matter how long it takes to get up and running, no matter how much continual annoyance they have to put up with, they are not going to spend a single red cent.

After all, software isn't goods, is it? It's just a bunch of sequential binary ones and zeroes - you shouldn't have to pay for something like that, should you? Surf over to http://serials.ws and see another interpretation of 'free software' (you might run into a lot of slash-dotters there).

Red Hat enterprise customers are starting to complain about support costs, reports eWEEK in its latest issue. New EULAs come around and suddenly they're dealing with expenses in the high six figures range. Of course the Linux kernel is there for the taking - and if the kernel weren't free, there would never have been such an interest in the product to start with. But Red Hat and SuSE are treading a wobbly tightrope here.

Sun Microsystems started the OpenOffice project to get at Microsoft. And more power to them. But Sun Microsystems sell some of the most expensive hardware and software around.

Sun Microsystems also produce some of the best hardware and software around, and Sun Microsystems package their free OpenOffice as StarOffice and put on a price tag, for they know that their clients wouldn't touch a 'free' product. If it costs only $90, that's good enough. With a price tag, you know it's reliable.

Sun customers get support for that $90. Not that there's much support needed. But try to see it from the customer's standpoint: Do you want to entrust your entire operation to a piece of software that no one will stand behind? And what if something does go wrong? Who are you to turn to? You don't really mean we should search Google groups, do you? You must be joking! We're trying to run a business here!

Nothing is for free. For the developers who continue to offer free code and free programs, the software certainly wasn't free for them. They offered their time, their work, and their money.

The least the slash-dotters of the world can do is try to be a little less arrogant and give the programmers credit for it.

And maybe a buck or two as well.

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