Free Software For a Small Country (Part One) - The Reasoning

Many times I have been asked to travel to a country to talk to them about Free Software. Sometimes it is at the request of the government of the country and other times by the citizens of the country.

Recently I was contacted by a person from a small country who wanted to know if Free Software could help his country develop an environment to create jobs. He was new to Free Software (he even called it “Freeware”), but after the call he had a firm conviction that it was just what his country needed.

He did not, however, know exactly where to start, exactly how to convince his government that this was worthwhile, and exactly how to get started.

This series of blog posts is for him, and for everyone who is in the same place.

       (BELOW: "Wordle" for Free Software For a Small Country (Part One) - The Reasoning by Jon "maddog" Hall)


Why is "Free Software" not "Public Domain" or "Freeware"

Free Software is software licensed to you under a certain set of conditions. In countries that recognize software copyright, it is owned by the people who wrote it or who were assigned that copyright (the copyright holders), and is licensed out to people who agree to obey the license. Free Software, following the GPL license, has specific rights and responsibilities that go with it:     

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

And the only freedom you don't have is to limit the freedom of someone else by taking away one of these freedoms as you pass on the code.

The specific wording of the General Public License (GPL) may have other obligations, but the above is what it intends to do.

Notice these laws never say you can not sell the can. It is just that Freedoms 2 and 3 will normally limit how much you can charge and make on each copy. Software becomes a service business, not a product business.

By the way, do not be dismayed by the term “service”. This is a high value service; the type a brain surgeon applies. A brain surgeon does not create a product. You do not end up with a second brain when they get finished. The brain surgeon fixes the brain you have. And you find (and pay for) the best you can. Your brain is important to you.

Yet you do not pay the brain surgeon for the ten minutes they spend in the operating room. You pay them for the twenty years it took them to learn where to make the incision.

“Open Source” has a series of other licenses such as BSD, MIT, and others which have specific obligations. You will find one thing that all the licenses have in common: you do not have to ask someone's permission to use the software or distribute it. You do not have to ask for a “letter of authorization”. Just use it.

Why is Free Software better than closed source proprietary software?

Most people think that Free Software is better than proprietary software because it is “gratis”. On the other hand in lots of emerging economies the piracy rate of desktop software is so high that the end user will say that “all of their software is gratis”.

Cost is not the issue. Of course if you can not afford the costs involved with software or any solution, then you are stuck without the solution. However, after you get past the costs, then you should be looking at return on your investment and whether that investment is money for licenses, installation costs, support costs, training costs or consulting costs, and whether that return is measurable or intrinsic.

One thing most people agree on is that stolen software creates a society of people who steal software and do not value the creation of any software. This does not generate any revenue for the maker of the software and little revenue for the integrator of stolen software. You can not ask for patches for stolen software. You can not ask for training to help you use your stolen software better. You can not call up the supplier and ask them to add a new feature to the software you (or someone else) stole.

While some end-users may get away with using stolen software, governments, large corporations and multinationals typically can not use stolen software. They have to pay the license fees and they typically pass on the cost of buying those licenses (and failure to get the software to work) to their customers in the form of higher prices and fees for the things that they make.

Stolen software also limits the worth of software producers. When people think that all they have to do is steal software, this increases the price for everyone, and means that the real software producers make less money for their time and effort.

The real value to Free Software however, is not in “the savings on the software”, but in the value added to the solution for the end user or (as we like to call them) the “customer”. Often through the use of Free Software we can come up with a solution more tailored to the customer's needs than a “boxed” solution. Perhaps Free Software can do a better integration of software if we can change the various building blocks of the software, using its ability to change each piece of software through the availability of source code.

Users of Free Software do not have to wait for patches or extensions to be made available by the manufacturer or creator of the software, as they can develop it themselves.

Free Software also encourages local jobs.

When you purchase closed-source software, the only people who can fix it are the people who created it. What happens when they are too busy, or too expensive, or too distant for the end user customer? The customer has to wait for the work to be done and it is typically done by someone back at the engineering headquarters. We say that the vendor has control of their software and the end user has lost control of their software (and sometimes their business).

With Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) the end user customer is in control. They can make the business decision to use the software as it is or hire someone to make the changes for them. And typically this person will live local to the customer. When the customer pays them for their time and expertise the local programmer can then buy local food, local housing and pay local taxes. The money stays in the local economy.

However, Free Software can affect the local economy in other ways. Before industry comes into an area they want to know that there is a good supply of technical talent that can help design the things they need to build. Without in-depth knowledge and skills, industry will not come. This is why high-tech areas seem to always cluster around certain physical areas that (typically) contain good universities. However, good people want challenging, rewarding work and will not stay in those areas without it. Installing and integrating packaged software is not considered “challenging and rewarding”. This is why a lot of recent graduates of developing nations may leave a country to go to the United States or Western Europe or Asia in search of meaningful, challenging, rewarding jobs.

Programming high tech solutions is considered “challenging and rewarding”. Changing and modifying Free Software to meet the needs of the end user can be the leverage that keeps the recent graduate from leaving the country and therefore act as an attraction to new industry or business.

This, in turn, stimulates the local economy.

In developing economies, it is often found that a person might be making the equivalent of four USD every day. If this person needs a bug fix or enhancement to a program, and they are asked to pay for it, they can hardly afford the cost of 400 USD per hour for a USA based programmer. That would be 100 days of not being able to eat or have shelter. If the end user embraced a local programmer in their local economy, they might be able to get the same job done for 4 USD per hour.

Next: Software for a Small Country – The Training