Open source does not mean free

Everyday I seem to hear people saying that companies, governments and schools should switch to Linux because its free. I don’t know how they understand the open source software philosophy, but to them it’s not free. I agree that for a personal user, you can equip a desktop computer with entirely open source software and not cost you a penny, but for large institutions such as those mentioned, that’s just not the case.

Schools

Even though Microsoft does offer education discounts to schools, the cost of maintaining Microsoft licenses for the entire school’s fleet of computers would still be very expensive. So, why not delete all the Microsoft software, and install freely avaliable Linux distributions such as Edubuntu, which is even specifically targeted at the educational sector.

Why is this such a bad idea? Consider the proportion of students at your average school that will be using Microsoft Windows in their future lives compaired to the ones using Linux? By pure speculation and educated guess-work, I estimate it could be around 1 in 100 to 1 in 200. Now, consider how all the staff are going to feel when you take away their shiney Windows desktops and replace them with Linux and whatever open source equivilent of the software they were using, just so the IT department could save a few pounds. The re-training and re-organisation costs could be more than the amount saved in software licenses, and this would be a recurring cost as new students and staff aren’t likely to have any Linux skills at all.

Companies

Forget about your technology companies, their employees are sometimes already trained in using *nix and other OSS, I’m talking about your bog standard SME who would have between five and five hundred computers.

If we’re talking about purely software costs, the bigger companies would benefit more. Even though Microsoft offers volume licensing, it’s pretty complicated and is still not cheap. For the smaller companies, who might not be on a licensing scheme, then the cost savings would be just the cost of a few Windows and Office licenses.

But in those companies, how many people are likely to know how to use Linux? Sure, Gnome and others try to make the Linux experience as easy as possible, apart from the fact that even Linus Torvalds and others in the community are against such ease of use interfaces. Bullshit! Do you really expect users to be able to learn to use the command shell? Do you even expect them to be able to configure Linux out of the box? I don’t think so, what they need is an operating system that does what they want, right out of the box, and is what something Microsoft Windows provides to a certain extent.

Elitism

Theres a certain elitism that the open source community has; they fell that anything not released under an open source license is far inferior to their open source alternatives, and they also feel that not being able to look into the code of something severely limits the use of that software. My view is that if you have to look under the bonnet to work the application, then its not worth using at all. For example, people who want to get the most out of their cars tweak the engines, maybe even modify it, but the majority of people just drive and leave the rest to people who are experienced at it. Until the Linux community gets that not everyone wants complete control and customisation, Linux will never make it mainstream. Microsoft’s next challenger is OS X.

The $100 laptop

It’s recently been speculated that Steve Jobs offered OS X for free on the $100 laptop, but he was rejected on the sole reason of OS X not being open source. The professors said that they wanted an operating system that people could tweak, but do you really think an eight year old child in Africa is really going to care about that? They’re just happy to have laptops, they don’t care, don’t need and don’t know how to tweak the operating system, and thats the way it should stay. Under the bonnet work such as that should be left to the experts, and the experts alone.

I think OS X would’ve been a great operating system for the laptop. It runs on some exceedingly low-spec hardware, but obvioulsy not as low as some Linux distributions, and it is very slick and polished user interface, that no Linux distribution can match, at all. I can’t see the kids challenging a $100 laptop that much, sending e-mail, browsing the web and basic office skills are about as much as they’re useful for. Their decision to go with Linux could be a very costly one, in terms of market appeal for these laptops (how many Linux machines exist in Africa?), and I also have a feeling that even if Microsoft offered Windows free, they still would’ve gone for Linux.

Sadly, no-one cares

In the end, its not my decision, and many people would feel differently. In fact, this article would be recognised by many as flamebait and they’ll respond accordingly. All I can say is, that the future doesn’t lie with OSS, it also doesn’t lie necessarily with Microsoft or Apple, but I do know that it doesn’t lie with OSS.

But once you stack up the costs of support and re-training, using Linux or OSS could and probably would cost more than sticking with Microsoft, especially if you user-base is not technically minded.

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