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.

The Dream of The Linux Desktop

In a (large) video meeting at virtual FOSDEM, someone joked that maybe this will finally be the “year of the Linux desktop”. One of the oldest jokes in the community. Everyone sniggered. But the joke’s on them: it already happened, like a thief in the night.

Virtual Brussels, home of Virtual FOSDEM

While we were all waiting for the open source community to topple Microsoft’s desktop monopoly by replacing the locally-installed operating system, we missed the real revolution. Sure, there’s still plenty of money in both operating systems and in desktop apps. Microsoft (and indeed Apple) will be milking that legacy monopoly for a good while even if they have started hollowing out themselves — on Linux. It’s certainly been the target of competitive attention from open source software from the beginning; indeed, the open source productivity suite family now epitomised by LibreOffice has over its long history done an effective job in opening up that part of Microsoft’s monopoly (even if mostly by triggering the creation of ODF).

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On Microsoft’s Journey

Nearly a decade on from my original journey model, how far has Microsoft really come? Are they now aligned with their peers?

A decade ago, I wrote about the journey corporations take as they move from treating open source as a threat to embracing software freedom as a corporate philosophy within their business strategy. It wasn’t a perfect model, but it had plenty of resonance for me and many others at the time. The steps were:

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Should we celebrate the anniversary of open source?

Tomorrow here in Portland at OSCON, OSI will be celebrating 20 years of open source. I’ve had a few comments along the lines of “I’ve was saying ‘open source’ before 1998 so why bother with this 20 year celebration?”


That’s entirely possible. The phrase is reputed to have been used descriptively about free software — especially under non-copyleft licenses — from at least 1996 when it appeared in a press release. Given its appropriateness there’s a good chance it was in use earlier, although I’ve not found any reliable citations to support that. It was also in use in another field well before then, to describe military or diplomatic intelligence obtained by studying non-classified sources.  Continue reading

Is Open Yet Closed Still OK?

In these days of code that no single mind can grasp, it’s hard to see how software freedom is present when there’s no realistic community access to source code.

Copycat Tree

In the early days of Free Software, it was a safe assumption that anyone using a computer had coding skills of some sort — even if only for shell scripts. As a consequence, many advocates of Free Software, despite a strong focus on user freedoms, had a high tolerance for software that made source available under free terms without providing other access to the project, especially in the days when that meant tapes by mail.  Continue reading

No To “No Hacking” Clauses

Trying to ban clever hacks in an open source licence is not OK.


A correspondent asks about the Open Source Definition (OSD):

“Does OSD 6 mean I can’t include a clause in a new open source license that prohibits hacking?”

Yes, you are correct – that’s called a “field of use restriction” (FoU) and copyright licenses that contain field of use restrictions are not approved as open source. Open source licenses are for guaranteeing software freedom, nothing more or less. Continue reading

Rehost and Carry On, Redux

A key value of open source is the ability to switch to a different supplier if your first becomes unavailable or unattractive. Forgerock is apparently withdrawing that value, on which it relied itself for its inception.


After leaving Sun I was pleased that a group of former employees and partners chose to start a new company. Their idea was to pick up the Sun identity management software Oracle was abandoning and continue to sustain and evolve it. Open source made this possible. Continue reading

Software Freedom, Utility and Maintenance Time

Whilst many may long for a truly open source OS that meets all of their needs, the reality has always been that compromise has a role to play whenever it comes to picking your operating system. Despite the availability and increasing ease of installation of purer open source systems, there remains a trade-off to be made. Systems with a high level of software freedom and an intuitively usable interface seem to require high levels of maintenance to keep them alive. Where a system with high software freedom’s been designed to require less maintenance, the usability seems to suffer. Of course, this triangle has a third point to it too: where a system is both easy to use and maintaining it doesn’t consume too much of your time, it’s software freedom that takes the hit.

What sort of system you choose should depend on which of those three factors you prioritise. Read the details about this theory, along with some pointers for recognising systems that value software freedom in Simon’s InfoWorld Article.