Open Source Strategies

A blog about open source software and business models, enterprise software, and the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM Suite.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Why We Pay for Free Software

Why a professional open source software company like ours pays for open source software.

When I first found out about open source, paying was the last thing on my mind. Why whould I ever pay for something that's already free?

Five years later, we're working daily with over two dozen open source technologies, including all the major ones such as Linux, Apache, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Eclipse, and so on. We're part of the core group of developers for the Open For Business project and sponsors of Sequoia Open Source ERP. We've become savvier developers ourselves and fairly experienced with open source software and open source communities.

We're also paying for open source software.

Í'd like to tell you that it's only because we appreciate the hard work and effort of all the open source developers out there. But there's a simpler reason: it's also how we can derive the most value from our open source software. We've learned from personal experiences that getting complex software, both open source and commercial, to produce results is not always easy. With some open source software, we've spent days, sometimes weeks, searching online or asking questions on mailing lists.

Finally, it dawned on me: I can't run a business like this. It was different when open source was my hobby, and the open source software I worked with were small. Today, though, when our business and our clients' businesses depend on open source software, I simply can't afford to take my time figuring it out. We need immediate results.

I also realized that it was extremely inefficient to learn things from scratch each time. Open source software has gotten very sophisticated and feature rich in the last few years. With it, the amount of knowledge required to configure and implement them has increased exponentially as well. As a result, it's simple faster and cheaper to pay for the help of someone who knows it well than to try to figure it out on our own. (Hey, isn't that why we all went to school?)

Finally, as an open source developer, we've learned this:
The value of software is not the source code,
but knowing what to do with that source code.

So am I disappointed? In a way, yes. I was hoping that open source software was not just "free" as in "free speech," but also "free" as in "free lunch." Now I realize that the lunch is often free, but I might have to pay for wine and dessert.

In the process of working with open source, though, I've also realized that the real value of open source software is not "free" but "control." Having access to the source code gives us control over what we can do with the software today and well into the future. It gives us the flexbility to customize it as much as we need and frees us from vendor lock-in risk down the road.

Most of all, since we have the source code, we have complete control in deciding what services we pay for and when we pay for them. We're never at anyone else's mercy.

So that's why I'm happily using free software and paying for it as we need to.

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