Great Free Software — Why real companies cannot compete

Free Software

Copyright (C) 2001 Free Software Foundation, Inc.

From time to time I find myself needing new software, more or less on the fly, and, increasingly, I am finding that the software that I end up selecting is open source or crowd-developed.

Yesterday, for instance, I needed to grab a complete copy of a web-site and discovered HTTrack Website Copier, a terrific open source software package available here with a very rudimentary Wikipedia entry here. I found the software by using Google, entering “Wikipedia web crawler open source” as a search criteria, and going from there.

The HTTrack software simply works and it is free (at least on the surface — more about this below,) but these are not the real reasons why I selected HTTrack over commercially available alternatives. Rather, the real reasons for selecting HTTrack was that it was immediately available, could be accessed and used without any hassle whatsoever, and was supported by an enthusiastic crowd, eager to provide the software and associated services to me. Moreover, as it is the case with most software in the open source or collaboration software domain, HTTrack is simple and to the point…. something very important to consumers operating in an increasingly complicated world.

The Issue with Commercial Software

In most cases, the issue with commercial options when you are looking for software for individual use or for use by small groups is not the price, but rather the difficulties associated with accessing and trying the software and the monolithic, totalitarian, and big-brother image projected by the company owning the rights to the commercial software package.

Simply put, downloading and using or trialing commercial software is much more tedious than doing so for open source software — in particular if you are not really sure what you want and, therefore, may want to try it out before actually paying anything or registering yourself as a user. The process of downloading and starting HTTrack, for instance, consisted of one click on the HTTtrack web-site. No one asked me who I was or what I wanted to do. No one demanded anything from me, and, once I was done with the software, I could uninstall it without anyone nagging me about it and without worrying about refunds and whether or not I had gottent value for my money.

In my posting about a bug in Smartware, Western Digital’s software for automatic backups, I have written about the interesting — but not surprising — fact, that software developers who work for love produce far better software than do software developers who work for profit, and, so, I was not surprised to discover that HTTrack was excellent software.

In my view the answer to the question as to why the non-commercial software market produces excellent software is a mix of this love, globalization, and the limited financial means available to the developers in this market.

Functionality Cramming

You see, a very real problem with today’s commercial software, i.e. software developed by software developers working inside the System, is that such software is too broad and encompasses too much — a function of the availability of excessive funds in the development process and an ingrained belief in the software industry that competitive advantage is gained by consistently adding more functionality to a product than do any competitors to their products, something that I refer to as “functionality cramming” (a trademark might be in order here, perhaps?)

Consider, for instance, the enormous amount of functionality crammed into Microsoft Excel, salesforce.com, or SAP — most of which is never actually used by a buyer of the software. This not only leads to hyper-growth in deployment size (think fatware,) but, also, by virtue of the pure mass of the unnecessary software, means that there is insufficient resources or interest within the commercial software organizations to make each piece of the software truly excellent.

Point Solutions

In contrast, software originating in the non-commercial software market is to the point, solving precisely one problem and doing so near-perfectly, something I refer to as “point solutions” (another trademark!,) simply because the software developers that are working outside the System have to limit their scope, reflecting their lack of resources. An obviously far superior approach from a consumer standpoint once you accept that functionality cramming has no true value.

As part of a strong feed-back loop, point solutions are becoming more and more prevalent as the mechanisms for accessing them are evolving. In terms of the deployment and delivery mechanisms, for instance, the evolution of smart mobile devices with high-speed Internet access has created an environment where mobile applications, which, of course, are uniquely — if not solely — suited to point solutions, can thrive. Likewise, the sales and promotion mechanisms have been helped immensely by the emergence of application stores and the emergence of PayPal as a viable alternatives to the rather silly business models of distributorships, brick and mortar software sales companies, and conventional merchant payment processing.

Interestingly, the explosive uptake in point solutions combined with the game-field leveling features of application stores and PayPal have enabled consumers to access superior software even if such software is made by software developers on the other side of the globe. This, of course, is a very big part of the answer to the question of excellence in software development.

The HTTtrack software, for instance, is made in France. Well, frankly, I don’t really know where the software is from and — importantly — I don’t really care, because all I really care about is that I have direct and immediate access to excellent software (I pause to acknowledge that there, of course, are concerns related to this, including concerns about global competition and nationwide unemployment — I am not making light of this fact, but right now, right here we are talking about something else.)

The Cost of Free

Free software, by the way, is not free:

  • First, because whatever person that is working — or did work — on the development of the HTTrack should be compensated for their efforts in order to enable and encourage him or her to continue to develop excellent software — something that is accomplished through donations (you can donate to HTTrack here,) and, so, if I want to continue to be able to access excellent, free software I must — paradoxically — pay for the software. Importantly, however, in strong contrast to commercial software, I pay because I want to, I pay the amount I want to, I pay after the fact, and I know exactly what I am paying for.
  • Second, because this form of software is under continued legislative attack courtesy of sponsorship and lobbying by the commercial software market players, and I, therefore, have to help protecting the very fundamental rights that enables the existence of the non-commercial software market through donations to organizations such as La Quadrature du Net, the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure, the Free Software Foundation, the Debian project, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Quite a mouthful? Not really. On balance, I probably do save a bit of money, but that is not the important thing about software originating from outside the System. Rather, the important things is that I get choice, access, and, ultimately, superior quality.

What about you? Do you find yourself using more and more open source software, and, if so, do you donate to the software developer or any organizations dedicated to protecing your rights to choose open source software over commercial software?

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