Open source in name only?

While doing some investigation for the upcoming Software Freedom Day event to be held at the State Library of Victoria on 18th September, an interesting trend emerged. As I browsed the plethora of free and open source software (FOSS) tools available in different disciplines, it became clear that many so-called ‘open source’ products were presented as such, but were free only in the form of ‘community editions’. Fully featured ‘premium’ versions of the product were only available in paid form. Is this an increasing trend toward open source in name only, with scant lip service paid to the principles of freedom, knowledge sharing and the greater good that ‘old school’ open source strives so hard for? Or is it a inevitable conclusion driven by market forces?

On one hand the stratification of products into ‘community’ and ‘premium’ editions goes some way to solving a dilemma which has plagued the open source sector for decades; how to derive value from a product which does not cost money to obtain. By encouraging adopters to ‘try’ the community edition and providing a seamless upgrade path to the paid version, the ‘owners’ of the open source product build a user base, while the user base is able to get access to a product for minimal financial risk – a seemingly win-win situation.

However, there are a number of problems here. Firstly, if a product starts out as open source and manages to generate an active developer and support community, with contributions made on a good will basis, what happens when that product is forked? Often, the ‘community edition’ is neglected and left to rot, while development effort (and money) is invested into the ‘premium’ edition. This is exactly what has happened to DimDim, once a truly open source product now split into a defunct open source ‘community’ fork, alongside a cloud service (albeit some offerings of which are free).  A similar thing has happened to KnowledgeTree, which once offered a community version alongside its premium, fully featured product. The community edition is no more. Other examples – which still sport community editions –  include SugarCRM and JasperSoft.

If I were a developer who had contributed to the original open source product, I would certainly feel cheated that the eventual product did not exhibit the same commitment to freedom, sharing, community, and the greater good that the antecedent did.

Perhaps the core issue here is one of branding. The term ‘open source’ connotes a sense of freedom; of contributing something for the greater good. There is a sense of emotional identification with a product or organisation which promotes itself as open source; it is a statement which says ‘we’re not just in this for the money’. However, I firmly believe that many organisations are simply using the phrase ‘open source’ as a hollow marketing tool, when their product suite does not reflect the core values of the open source community – free as in beer and free as in freedom.

So what is the answer? Projects like WordPress have employed a different tactic; here a suite of value-adding services such as hosting and personal support are being provided, while the base product remains completely free and open source. To me this is the preferable model – as the product itself remains free, while the organisation can add value (and derive a profit) while enhancing – rather than detracting – from the code base.

Regulation – such as stipulating standards against which organisations must comply if they are to label their products as ‘open source’ are likely to fail in a globalised environment with multiple jurisdictions and no imperative for monitoring.

Perhaps the answer lies in developers and end users becoming more savvy – and being discerning enough to recognise when a product – and the philosophy behind it – is truly open source; and when ‘open source’ is just another buzzword on a marketing brochure.

Software Freedom Day 2009

Software Freedom Day 2009 was held at the Melbourne PC User Group rooms at Chadstone shopping centre on 19th September 09. Organised by Brianna Laugher, President of WikiMedia Australia, and Donna Benjamin, President of Linux Users’ Victoria, the event aimed to showcase the numerous free and open source software and hardware tools available for use.

The day saw numerous presentations, including;

  • Wen Lin presented on how to use alternative operating systems such as Ubuntu on your netbook, and how to use Clonezilla for backup up and restoring your system
  • Ben Sturmfels presented on the basic freedoms that open source software embodies
  • Simon Hobbs provided an overview of using Drupal for building websites
  • Minh Nguyen presented on programming with Python
  • Daniel Jitnah presented on how to make the move to open source

During the day Andy Gelme, who’s heavily into open hardware and is involved with the Community Connected Hackerspace in Melbourne gave an hour and a half workshop on Arduinos, where we all got to program an Arduino. This was much easier than I had anticipated, as it only required a bsic knowledge of electronics, and some experience in C.

I ran two workshops during the day on WordPress;

A very big thank you to Multimedia Victoria, who generously supported the event, allowing hundreds of Open CDs containing free and open source software to be produced and distrubted.

Bonnie Babes – an open source email and website solution

The Bonnie Babes Foundation website, email and shared calendaring has recently been developed using free and open source software. That is, each of the software tools is completely and absolutely FREE! My time on the project (around 100 hours all up) was also donated, so the only costs incurred by the Foundation were for web hosting ($15 per month at Servers Australia).  So, how did it all come together?

Email

Bonnie Babes were previously using a POP-based solution using the organisation’s primary email contact address. This meant that if five separate people on five separate computers each sent mail, no one else could see what had been sent. This was migrated to an IMAP-based solution using Thunderbird.

The old POP email was moved to the IMAP folders. The biggest hassle here was that there was around 80 times more email to migrate to IMAP than I had budgeted for during the analysis phase. Luckily, Servers Australia came to the party and gave us some breathing space with an extra half a gig (NOTE: Big thanks Jared!). There was one machine that would crash every time I tried to import the mail from Outlook into Thunderbird, so as a workaround we first imported the mail from Outlook into Outlook Express, and from Outlook Express into Thunderbird. This finally worked (just be careful if you have to do this, as it imports ALL accounts from Outlook Express).

The staff at the organisation were used to using Outlook rather than Thunderbird, however they seemed to adapt fairly quickly. The only glitches we found were that the formatting in Thunderbird is a little different to Outlook – so ‘Paste without formatting’ was used as a workaround.

Filters have been set up on one computer rather than different computers having different filters applied.

Shared calendar

One of the requirements of the organisation was to have a shared calendar so that appointments, events and to do lists could be shared among multiple staff. An Exchange server was out of budget, so I settled for Sunbird. With Sunbird, it can be set up so that a remote calendar can be used. An .ics file was set up for this purpose on the web server, however it was made available under the FTP root rather than the web server root for security reasons.

The calendar is then accessed via a standard FTP URL such as:

ftp://username:password@ftp.mydomain.org.au/path/to.ics

Website

The website has been created using WordPress, with a number of plugins. Chief among them are cForms, for building user editable contact forms and the eShop plugin for online commerce. I had originally planned to use the WP e-Commerce plugin for the Online Shop component, however this plugin seems to be full of bugs and I had no end of trouble installing it.

One very useful plugin that deserves a mention is pageMash – used for ordering pages within WordPress. I’m surprised that this functionality hasn’t been made better yet – as the developers state, it’s still a little ‘janky’. Hopefully this will get a look in for the 2.8 release of WordPress.

One of the very nifty things I learned about WordPress during this exercise is that there is an .ics calendar available of upcoming releases – very handy (and very quickly put into Sunbird!)

Of course, the website validates as XHMTL transitional and CSS 3 valid (a very big thanks to Jason King for picking up that the theme version 1.0 wasn’t compliant).

Google tools

The web presence also makes use of a number of freely-available tools by Google, including;