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The Business of Free Software

Sep 10, 2008
The concept of free software has amazed me because so many developers were willing to put in time outside of their day jobs for the fun of it and just to give away their work. Its voluntary nature, made me expect that the free software movement would stay in the realm of more technically inclined people and would not to turn into mainstream business. However, it has defied all my expectations, going from strength to strength. I got a clue that it had arrived when Dell announced a line of PCs based on Linux. But how does a movement whose premise is being "free" get the attention of the world?

One of the less obvious traits of free software is that nowhere does it ban from charging users money for software. What it does stress, however, is that the source code be made available so that the user can study or modify it, redistribute it to their friends and release the changes they have made back for the community to use. Companies can charge for their goods and services while still following free software ethics. In this article, I will examine some of the avenues that are used.

Product support and technical training

This is the preferred operation for Linux vendors such as RedHat. RedHat packages Linux into a distribution and allows users to download products and services free of charge. They have a strong focus towards the server market as that is the sector that Unix/Linux have been most successful in beating back Microsoft's rampant monopoly.

Most companies don't wish to divert resources from their core competencies to figure out how to install RedHat systems nor do they want to trouble shoot in case something goes wrong. So RedHat charges them for technical support a training of staff. RedHat is within its rights to charge $500 dollars/hour for this as long as they do a good job. Their core competencies are in their complicated knowledge of the distribution they have put together and their ability to effectively setup systems or diagnose faults.

Licensed versions of Open source software

One of the main provisos of the GPL license is that software that is strongly linked to another product released under the GPL license has to be released under the open source license as well. Some companies would like to base their products and services on an open source (the free DBMS system MySQL is a good example) without releasing their software as being an open source.

MySQL can have two versions of their system, one which is released as open source while the other is closed source which needs a license before it can be used. A variation of the above is releasing a basic version of the software as open source so as to obtain a larger audience compared to non free software and charging customers for an upgrade to a premium version which has more features/more support etc.
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