Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Would society be better if software were free? The pros and cons

Spent some time this year thinking about Richard Stallman's philosophy about open source software, and whether the world might be a better place if all software was free.  Being at MIT and working on a open-source software project will do this to you...

Some arguments for why a totally open-source society could work:
  • Programmers can still make money customizing software for customized functions and support services
  • Potentially lower barriers to entry for all businesses; lower costs for entrepreneurship worldwide
  • Could potentially lead to the production of more and better software based on existing software
  • Could help the developing world who cannot afford to pay
  • Quality of software is often low due to “black box” approach; opening code would allow for improvements
  • Creates virtual monopolies or oligopolies that limit benefits to consumers (e.g. Windows)
  • Enforcement is a violation of principles of freedom (the Libertarian argument)
  • Free software promotes unprecedented levels of worldwide collaboration, why stop it
The basic arguments for no way (and you could add ad infinitum to this):
  • Profits incent innovation; no investment in software means a slower rate of technology improvement
  • Software would be developed internally to meet business needs; this would be ineffecient
  • Quality cannot be guaranteed, especially for the non-technical consumer; is it really free if you need to buy support services to get it to work?
  • Software can be donated or provided at a discount for those who need it

Realistically speaking..

A balance between open source and for-profit models is ideal.  I'm starting to wonder if it is possible for society to converge on an optimal balance on its own.  With open-source software entreprenuers coupling with technically oriented social entrepreneurs, we may see exactly this happen. In a way, open-source is an effective way to segment many markets between high WTP/low WTP or customers with a high need to customize.  We are at least seeing organizations realize strong benefits from opening up their platforms, which will lead to more open innovation in the future.  We are seeing from the likes of Facebook and Apple that it creates content, customer loyalty and enhanced products with minimum additional $ investment.

Software copyright rules currently provide 70 years of protection; perhaps this should be reduced to a much shorter term (5 to 15 years?).  A debate topic for another day.

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