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.

Making Links 08 – Intensive Web Day

The Making Links 08 conference was held this week at the University of Melbourne. The tagline of the conference is ‘where social action and technology meet’ – and the delegates are primarily from the community, not for profit, activist and educational sectors.

I decided to catch the train up to Melbourne as it’s both cheaper and less stressful than driving in peak hour traffic through the West Gate car park. Who should happen to sit next me on the train? None other than former Liberal member for Corangamite – Stewart McArthur. The irony was not lost on me – a presenter at a largely left wing conference chancing to sit next to a right wing MP. Perhaps the universe was having a chuckle. Stewart was devouring his way through at least three newspapers – so I tried to break the ice by asking him which one he thought was the most truthful. To his credit, he took the question very well and provided me with advice on the merits of various individual journalists. We got talking and I found out he was a keen runner, and he encouraged me to take up the sport. I felt like a politician when I refused to commit 🙂

My talk on the day was on free software for non-profit organisations;

making-links-kathyreid-useful-free-software (Open Office .odp file)

making-links-kathyreid-useful-free-software (Powerpoint .ppt file)

The presentation went well, and the audience let me know they were very pleased with it – and had a load of questions! 🙂

I then lead the CMS session – which didn’t go quite so well as we spent a lot of time on security issues rather than being able to demonstrate the software in a lot of depth.The group really wanted to see some different options with skinning Drupal and Joomla – however I hadn’t upoaded any and I couldn’t get FTP access with the wireless network connection. There was a lot of contention over whether Joomla or Drupal were more appropriate for use – with the comment raised theat Drupal documentation wasn’t up to scratch.

Some of the key themes expressed during the day were;

  • Concern over having sensitive information in databases hosted on the web: CiviCRM is a tool which holds contact details and personal information on donors and volunteers. Delegates were concerned about the security that would be applied to ensure that unauthorised access did not occur to this data.I’ve provided some links below for further information on these products.
  • Criteria on which to base a CMS decision: Many organisations wanted information on how to select the best CMS for their need. One of the delegates provided this handy link to CMS matrix which allows organisations to compare the functionality that is available through different CMSs.
  • How to being a foray into social networking: The organisations that were present needed pointers on how to step into the social networking waters – with some already on Facebook or Twitter, but with no real engagement strategy or supporting strategies.

Other key presentations included:

Jason King (non profit web designer) presented tips for non profits, including;

  • Register your name and keep it registered (so that somebody can’t grab it when it expires) – this theme was also bourne out by Darryl later on in the session with his presentation on whatsinaname.com.au, which lists all of the domain name registrars and prices for domain hosting (interestingly my host, Servers Australia isn’t on the list – and they’d be near the top for pricing)
  • Make sure that you keep all the details such as passwords for the site – so that in the event of a disagreement or dispute with the web designer, you’re able to get into the site and take control
  • Choose your web developers carefully – sometimes the director’s brother’s kid son is not the best person to plan or design your not for profit web site.

Andrew Edwards, of Huge Object also gave a presentation on working with developers, the key take aways being;

  • Know what you’re paying for – understanding exactly what the developer is quoting on can give you much clearer expectations of what will be delivered
  • Check our your developer – by making sure that they know what things like web standards are for instance
  • Have a clear idea of what you want in your website – so that what is delivered is more likely to be what is delivered

[Updated 17 Nov 08 to include summary of Jason and Andrew’s presentations]