Software Freedom For Business Value

Software freedom is important to as an idea, but it also creates all the value of open source for business and should be jealously guarded by OSPOs.

In talking about open source, I and others routinely use the expression “software freedom” to refer to the set of rights upon which the open source phenomenon is based. It arises as a synonym for “free software”, an unfortunately ambiguous term that leads people hearing it for the first time to conclude all the primary attributes of open source software relate to money — price, cost-of-ownership, license fee and so on.

“Software freedom” puts the focus in the right place — on the essential liberties required to benefit from the software. One problem with this alternative term is we are becoming accustomed to hearing discussions of “freedom” be limited to activist or political contexts, and consequently regard the term “software freedom” with caution. But a focus on software freedom isn’t just for the revolutionaries.

All the values that make businesses pick open source software — both as alternatives to off-the-shelf software and now as elements of a platform strategy — are derived from software freedom. You can use the presence of software freedom as the ‘genetic marker’ for value to your business. Ensuring software freedom is delivered to the enterprise is a primary role of open source program offices (OSPOs).

The free software definition does indeed read like a revolutionary manifesto, partly because it is. The people behind it often eschew the pragmatism of the term ‘open source’ for historical reasons. But it’s worth looking behind their philosophy as it remains the heart of open source. I paraphrase the free software definition as guaranteeing the liberty to use, study, improve and share software for any purpose without further negotiation. Those four liberties are not important to you (only) as an ideology — they also create all the value of open source for business:

  • Being able to use the software for any purpose, without first having to seek special permission (for example by paying licensing fees or negotiating royalties). This allows developers to try everything and use what works. It also means suppliers need to demonstrate value beyond just access to the software.
  • The availability of skills and suppliers because they have had no barriers to studying the source code while also experimenting with it. The market in experienced staff, open source tools together with expert consultants is getting richer, and more vibrant by the day because of this freedom.
  • The assurance that vendors can’t withhold the software from you because anyone has the freedom to improve and re-use the source code. If a vendor decides to end support for open source software, another company can step in and carry on where they left off. If the capability you need isn’t there, you can get it elsewhere, have it written or write it yourself.
  • The freedom to pass the software on to anyone that needs it, even including your own enhancements – including your staff, suppliers, customers and (in the case of governments) citizens.

These freedoms also combine to deliver benefits associated with open source: the right to fork arises from all of them together; the ability to form a collaborative community arises from them; the ability to subset and super-set code as well as repurpose it in unrelated works arises from them; the ability to embed software in devices or scalably deploy in the cloud arises from them. All are easiest to appropriate when using software licensed under a community-reviewed, OSI-approved license.

When software users are deciding which suppliers to deal with, they need to know whether their software freedoms are being respected and cultivated, not out of a sense of philosophical purity but because their budgets as well as success depend on it. All the values that differentiate open source for the business user are the first derivative of software freedom. A primary role for an OSPO is thus to ensure that this value accrues to the company they serve and not (just) to a supplier.

Having meaningful markers governments and larger businesses can use in their procurement to favour open source – the software that lowers costs, avoids lock-in while also enabling unexpected future uses of data and software – is not an abstract matter of angels on pinheads or out-of-touch insiderism. It’s exactly the catalyst for innovation and value that the enterprises I’ve been visiting are asking for. Look for the genetic marker of business value –- open source that delivers software freedom to you and doesn’t have it exhausted elsewhere.