Access to the source code confers an advantage

Service Call

Article from Issue 109/2009

In times of economic stress, you can add value to your services by leveraging the resources of the FOSS community.

"How do you make money with Free Software?"

To me, the answer is simple. How do most people make money with proprietary software?

After all, most "computer people" do not work for a company that packages software for consumption by end users. Most computer people are systems administrators, integrators, educators, value-added resellers (VARs), and other people that do not contribute to the actual packaged software product. Others are "support people," who answer customer's questions about how to use the software.

All of these people are "service people" who provide services to customers. Some of them act as resellers of the licensed code, and a portion of the sales price is their pay in the form of commission, but this is only a portion of the money that they make. Most of their money comes from providing a service to the customer on the basis of the software that they re-sell.

What the customer is buying, of course, is a solution. Ideally, customers do not care which software they use, as long as they can get their job done. Other factors enter in, such as the ability to get support for the software in the form of training and questions answered. Companies that hire a lot of temporary help also tend to prefer popular software so that they have a large pool of people to call on as contract employees.

One of the similarities between Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Closed Source Software (CSS) is that either can be used as it comes, without modification. With CSS you open the box; with FOSS you pull it over the Internet. With FOSS, though, you typically do not have to pay for a license, and you typically do not have to worry about an agency, such as the Business Software Alliance, coming after you to see whether or not your software has been pirated.

The larger difference is that you do not have the source code for the CSS software, so it is harder to integrate into the customer's business.

Try to imagine integrating two CSS software products. Maybe they work fairly well together, except for some little incompatibility that causes difficulty. Like two glass rods with perfectly smooth ends that you try to glue together, you might get them to unite for a while, but it is a lot of work, and you are not sure whether the bond will hold.

Now try to get two FOSS projects to work together. As a VAR, integrator, or other person involved with the customer's solution, you can change the source code of the two pieces of software and get them to play nicely with each other. It's a little like sandpapering the ends of the glass rods before gluing them together, giving the glue a better grip.

With so much software piracy around, much of the licensed software is actually unlicensed. This not only puts your customer in jeopardy but also cheapens the real value of the software.

FOSS software, however, is freely licensed. The customer knows what he or she is paying for, which is your service. Typically, you can either reduce the price of the overall solution so you are more competitive with the closed source solution vendors, or you can legally put more money in your pocket because you do not have to pay for the licenses.

Another difference between CSS and FOSS is in education. If you are developing educational materials for CSS and you are not on the development team, it is hard to develop those materials because you cannot see the source code. The people who develop the code are (almost by definition) the people who know the program best; therefore, your materials and instruction will be at a disadvantage.

With FOSS, there is no reason why your materials and instruction cannot be just as good, or even better, than the materials from the people who are developing the programs. Because you can see how the program works, you could, for example, give tips on the basis of the algorithms chosen, which the developers might not think important. Additionally, with a truly open project, you can join the development team and feed comments back to them from your customers to improve the ongoing development of the software.

Finally, as a systems administrator, you are paid to provide good support to your co-workers. With closed source software, you are dependent on what the CSS companies develop for you. With FOSS, you can either make changes yourself or work with a team to develop the changes you need to give better support to your work community.

In your monthly report to management, don't forget to tell them about leveraging your time and skills with those of the FOSS community. In times of economic stress, your management might appreciate that.

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