Commercial uses of Open Source Software

Open source software collageI recently received an email from a friend who wrote he did not know how he could have brought a former software business “to market and made a living for my family, my partners and their families and our employees and their families on an open source basis. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe that situation is unique to the industry I was in. I am really slow when it comes to software. I don’t get how anyone can afford to develop software and give it away.(My emphasis) Explain?”

I will attempt to give the question an answer…

IBM, Oracle, Google Android, Amazon, and many other software heavyweights use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and it seems to have paid off for them. I think the IBM or Red Hat approaches to the enterprise might have helped a business model similar to that of my friend. More detail below…

Defining Free and Open Source Software (FOSS):

Open Source rocksFree and Open Source Software (FOSS)“…focuses on the fundamental freedoms it gives to users, whereas open source software focuses on the perceived strengths of its peer-to-peer development model…” In his book “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, Eric S. Raymond, states that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” which is one of the main ideas and strength of open source software. The Free Software Foundation believes software should be free of monetary cost and anyone should be free to look at its source code, to modify that code and to freely distribute it. Not everyone who is a FOSS (perhaps OSS) advocate agrees. The main agreement among all FOSS advocates is the freedom of and control over the software for the user.

Commercial uses of Open Source Software:

There are nearly unlimited “Business models for open-source software”. Open Source Software can be part of a consulting project whereby the customer pays for the developers’ efforts such as finding and fixing flaws, or to create value-added features. Consultants also charge for training, installation, technical support, or customization of their software. is the web site of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) which “is a global non-profit that supports and promotes the open source movement.” Their FAQ has, among others, this question:
“Can Open Source software be used for commercial purposes?”
“Absolutely. All Open Source software can be used for commercial purpose; the Open Source Definition guarantees this. You can even sell Open Source software.” However, note that commercial is not the same as proprietary(emphasis mine). If you receive software under an Open Source license, you can always use that software for commercial purposes, but that doesn’t always mean you can place further restrictions on people who receive the software from you. In particular, so-called copyleft-style Open Source licenses require that when you distribute the software, you do so under the same license you received it under.”

You can write an open source product protected by copyright and patents and still make the source code available for the “many eyeballs” to take a look at it; Red Hat does.

Open Source Software, Patents and Copyright:

This article is by a lawyer who gives an apt warning to those who want to use open source software.

“Software is unique because it can be protected by both copyrights and patents. Copyrights in software protect the unique expression in the code, while patents protect new and nonobvious functionality. So you copyright the code and you patent the function. Patents are far more valuable for that reason given that a patent would protect the implementation regardless of how the code is written or what languages are used.”

He essentially says that developers should know what are the licenses in their underlying software product before they send it out to customers.

Another article on patents and software called “Free And Open Source Software And Your Patents” says “software patents themselves are controversial. Many software authors and technology companies in both the open and closed source spheres argue that software inventions are too abstract to legitimately enjoy patent protection, being more akin to mathematical algorithms than concrete industrial devices.”

If my friend today used an open source product such as the Linux kernel he would legally have to comply with whatever the open source license was, something usually called “copyleft” by the open source people. There are varying degrees of these licenses from saying “give me the author of the code credit” to “You must contribute back changes to the original code and that linked code must be under the same licenses.(my emphasis).” Today, if my friend was using the free Linux kernel his company MIGHT save itself money for OS fees. Instead of a Mac my friend would have a 15-year-old build quality but cheap hardware, THEN his developers would write their proprietary software using the Linux OS base, open source software tools and applications, and add value to it and create a unique product. My friend would be able to patent it, therefore protecting his investment and keeping nefarious dudes from copying and selling someone else’s ideas on the cheap.

Network and Computer Security:

Network securityOpen source software is for almost any operating system and is used in many different security and network software solutions. Just because the code is available for the “eyeballs” to critique, does not mean that it is insecure or easy to hack or break into. As only one example among many is OpenPGP. OpenPGP claims to be “the most widely used email encryption standard in the world.” OpenPGP generates encryption codes for email messaging and documents. The code for the software which generates the keys is open for examination, the keys which the software generates are not. Other “industrial strength” security and anonymity software includes Orbot, Tor, OpenVPN, and many others.

Risks and Pioneers:

Risks and PioneersMy friend recently mentioned to me that he thought the original spirit of early settlers of the United States was embodied in a photo of a covered wagon he saw and that the photo reminded him of the original American “pioneering spirit.” I think Linux and FOSS embodies the American spirit at the core of what that covered wagon and the pioneers represent. Linux and FOSS people do not play it safe, they like to tinker and make their own hot rods, and they still make money and get their “other” jobs done.

It seems that since World War Two, far too many US citizens have lost that pioneering spirit and are afraid of their government, hackers, terrorists, the tax man, the boogeyman, and almost everything else. Hackers and geeks are the 21st century version of these pioneers. They are some of the least risk-averse people on the planet. Anonymous and other “white-hat” hackers are the few revolutionaries who are “manning the barricades” of social change and fighting back against the Nazi-type tactics of big governments as well as assisting in bringing real “bad guys” to justice or bringing them down. Almost all of them use Free and Open Source Software because FOSS contains the best tools a hacker can use.

I like the concept of shared ideas. The idea of free (as in give it away) software, open for inspection and sharing (open source), touches a positive and responsive chord in me. People who are innovative can give away software and still make a fortune if they want. I predict that neither Microsoft nor Apple will long continue to charge for software and the recent free upgrades of the MacOS is a harbinger of that trend.

There are thousands of developers who write FOSS and although many of them are full-time paid professionals, many are also part-time and unpaid and some are simply hobbyists who love to write software.

Proprietary Sofware- Apple and Microsoft:

Apple and MicrosoftIn my post “Innovate, Stagnate or Die” I mention that until recently, Apple was the main innovator of personal computers. Apple invented or developed the SCSI external device, enabling “plug and play”, USB drives, Bluetooth, fast ethernet, and a host of other innovations which other hardware manufacturers copied and are now industry standards. Apple Mac software, worked because it was always fine-tuned to the hardware it ran on.

Steve Jobs died and his cult has started to die with him. Unfortunately for Apple, the death of Steve Jobs “was a death knell for Apple, he was its heart and soul…” I predict the slow demise of Apple and probably Microsoft unless they move to FOSS and come up with new innovations.

Windows hardware manufacturers with Windows 95, through their near monopoly, started to put economic pressure on manufacturers to write their software specifically for the hardware they put Windows on such as laptops. However, neither MacOS nor Windows allows any user, including hardware manufacturers, to make changes to their operating system. They are locked-in. If you do not like something or something does not work, you are stuck. Apple Mac and Windows software, although good, is simply not good enough for a hacker or someone who just wants to “look under the hood.” In today’s computing world, this is stifling innovation as developers move steadily in the direction of FOSS.

Today we find the Google cult because they are the innovators, they are the ones being copied or leading the way. Nearly all modern films which show a computer using doing a search, do that search on Google. Some time near in the future it may be some other. Google uses FOSS, I am willing to bet that open source software will be at the core of anything innovative in the future.

GIMPThe days of closed-source and proprietary software are numbered. No software company can ignore the inroads that FOSS has made into the computing world and can not continue to function when Free and/or Open Source alternatives are continually being produced. As just one example is a silly named product called the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) in the photo-editing world. GIMP is “a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.” GIMP is both FREE and Open Source and its main competition is Photoshop which costs over $1,000.00 USD retail. LibreOffice and OpenOffice are alternatives to the Microsoft Office suite costing hundreds of dollars retail. For “the rest of us” both GIMP and the FOSS office suites are ample, full-featured and will run on any personal computer operating system.

A comparison of Mac, Windows and Linux:

RollsThe Mac is a Rolls that requires a Rolls engineer to change or alter anything in it.

Ford any color blackWindows is a cheap Ford that requires a Ford engineer to touch anything in it and yet it still rattles and bangs and suddenly stops dead while driving it.

Linux the custom hotrodLinux is the old rusting bucket of bolts you find in a pasture somewhere, you clean it up, overhaul an old monster motor, put the motor in the body and eventually put it on a drag strip to take on all comers. Yet, granny can drive it to the market. There is nearly nothing more iconic to a “free and pioneering” American than a road trip and making that road trip in a custom rod.

Linux, in case you have been living in a cave the last 20 years, is an operating system “assembled under the model of free and open source software development and distribution.” (The Linux kernel was first released on 5 October 1991 by Linus Torvalds.)

By sealing the hood of a fast car you have no idea what is under that hood. If the motor blows up, only the engineers who have the blueprints and specs ever know what happened. If the auto company publishes the specs and engineering diagrams of everything under the hood, everyone knows what the manufacturer is offering and can make suggestions about how it could be better. Yet, even thought they published the details of the design, a competitor would be in legal trouble if they, copied it and put it under the hood of a cheap “clone” without permission.

Top supercomputers by OSLinux will run on almost any hardware platform in use today; a small phone, laptops, desktop computers, supercomputers, or tablets. Internet routers which are the “traffic cops” of the Internet run Linux, most of the servers in the world run Linux, refrigerators and other home appliances and automobiles run Linux.
Linux rules on Supercomputers: “When it comes to supercomputers, Linux is the operating system of choice and it has been since 2004.” The world is essentially powered mostly by FOSS and that is usually Linux.

Examples of Commercial Companies using FOSS:

Apple OSX uses FOSS under its hood “…X is the Roman numeral for 10 and is a prominent part of its brand identity…’X’ is also used to emphasize the relatedness between OS X and UNIX.” FreeBSD, the base of your Mac operating system, is a FOSS version of UNIX, the grandaddy of modern PC/desktop operating systems.

Android has quickly become the fastest selling tablet and smartphone operating system on the planet. Android’s base is the Linux kernel and there are many versions of the Android system running on all kinds of hardware. The source code is FOSS but its design and use on different hardware is different because it is open source. Companies such as Samsung, Acer, Amazon (Amazon uses Android in a competing product called the Nexus Fire as does Barnes and Noble in their Nook), ASUS, Sony, Toshiba and others all use Android. These manufacturers pay a fee to Google if they use Google’s version of Android, otherwise they can, free of charge, develop their own version. They are all making a lot of money off the base OS by selling their particular brand of phone, tablet, laptops and other devices. Because of this, Android systems are eating the market share of Apple systems in the mobile market and Google continues to be innovative. There are a lot of top Apple engineers who are leaving Apple and going to work for Google. Not that that is right or good, it just is.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux: sells a commercial product to small and large businesses such as schools, businesses, governments, and others. They also sponsor and freely give away their Fedora Linux for geeks to use and developers to seek out and correct the flaws (bugs) in the code and tell Fedora what they find. Those Fedora changes end up in Red Hat Enterprise. Red Hat makes money by selling support for the enterprise customer and offering training for Red Hat Linux certification for system administrators, a coveted certification these days.

ArsTechnica published a story called “How Red Hat killed its core product—and became a billion-dollar business.” The article states that Red Hat is “…the first billion-dollar-a-year company making its revenue entirely (or almost entirely) from building and maintaining open source software.” Not only is Red Hat traded on the NYSE but “The New York Stock Exchange and its European subsidiary exchanges are running their trading systems on Red Hat Enterprise Linux.”

IBM runs all their stuff on Linux these days and is still a powerhouse in computing. “IBM offers full support services for Linux on all IBM server platforms. IBM also offers full services solutions for planning, designing, implementing, migrating and consolidating onto Linux.” This means big bucks in service and support without spending tons of money on proprietary licenses to Microsoft or Apple.

Oracle, the “industrial strength” database vendor, uses Linux in their product, yet they make a ton of money and are the database of choice for most large businesses. Because they are open source, their database product can be modified to fit a client’s unique needs, by the client when they want, or they can choose to have Oracle do it for them. Oracle will sell support to Red Hat Linux customers and offer its own free clone of the open-source operating system, posing a major competitive challenge to the leading Linux seller.” Larry Ellison is the co-founder and CEO of Oracle and one of the multi-billion dollar dot-com entrepreneurs. “In 2013, Forbes listed him as the third-wealthiest man in America Oracle’s CEO. “ (Wikipedia)

Use of Linux and FOSS by Governments and Businesses:

It does not take much to find at least a partial list of government entities, which use Linux and other free/open source software. Portions of the US Government use FOSS/Linux as do the French, the UK, and China which has developed its own version of Linux. “As local governments come under pressure from institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Intellectual Property Alliance, some have turned to Linux and other Free Software as an affordable, legal alternative to both pirated software and expensive proprietary computer products from Microsoft, Apple and other commercial companies.” NOTE: “the U.S. Army is the single largest install base for Red Hat Linux”

The Free and Open Source Software movement has been around and active for well over 20 years and has now reached a level of maturity where no one can seriously scoff at its uses either at the single user level or within the largest governmental and corporate levels. The 21st Century is the century of FOSS. Get Linux…

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