Platform Independent European Union Researches the Benefits of Open Source Software

by Andy Oram

Editor's Note: Andy Oram reports on the possible implications of a recent study that explored the reasons behind the widespread use of, and support for, free and open source software.

A major research project under the name Free/Libre and Open Source Software: Survey and Study, or FLOSS, recently explored reasons behind the widespread use of, and support for, free and open source software. This is, to my knowledge, the first large-scale, rigorous study concerning any aspect of free software. It involves interviews with thousands of developers and hundreds of businesses, with carefully-chosen questions and a correlation of results.

Equally significant is the funder of the study: the European Union. These government representatives have displayed a growing curiosity about, and sympathy for, the free software phenomenon; see, for instance, the recent announcement concerning OpenEvidence, a project in digital certificates and signatures. The EU is an excellent body to sponsor a sympathetic but demanding inquiry into the purposes and processes of free software development. (The study was carried out for the EU by Berlecon Research GmbH and the University of Maastricht. The business survey involved only European participants, but the developer survey was worldwide.)

This article, like most of mine, will involve a modest portion of summary accompanied by an ample serving of my own impressions and analysis.

Slow and Steady

The burning question many people bring to this survey -- whether friend or foe -- is: "Why would organizations choose to use free software?" We know that the "free as in beer" aspect of free software appeals to underdeveloped countries (see recent news items from Peru and Venezuela, along with China's Red Flag Linux). But in more affluent Europe, price is not the issue. Over and over in the FLOSS study, organizations place cost savings low on their list of reasons for choosing free software. Ideological reasons will be discussed later in this article. Overwhelmingly, the highest ranking reasons for using free software center on quality:

  • Higher stability
  • Better access protection
  • Higher performance
  • Better functionality

Admittedly, "better price-to-performance ratio" turns up with a high rating. But the survey notes that true cost comparisons are hard to make with any confidence. Organizations also like the absence or low burden of license fees, but I'm not sure that this is a cost issue. Organizations might simply want to avoid the pain in the ass of predicting needs, negotiating with the vendor, dealing with malfunctioning license servers, and so on.

Still, quality issues clearly trump cost issues in the FLOSS survey. This is powerful ammunition for activists fighting the old misconception, still far too prevalent, that free software is a poor man's consolation for the lack of funds to buy really good software.

Looking deeper, I find another lesson in this confidence expressed by businesses and nonprofits. The relatively slow pace of development in free software is one of its strengths. Proprietary software companies have earned a terrible reputation over many decades for shoveling in check-off boxes as fast as marketing representatives can think them up. Bugs inevitably abound. Users complain about bloatware and features that merely get in their way, as well as trying to fix bugs by upgrading to the next feature release and getting more bugs.

Perhaps this is why MySQL is gaining market share, even though it started off quite feature-poor; MySQL AB has taken its sweet time adding such basics as transaction support and encrypted data transfers. What they offer is rock-solid reliability (along with the performance that one achieves by leaving out computationally-heavy functionality).

Security, which is now on administrators' minds more than ever, has always been understood to be a function of stability and code quality. Modern Windows systems have a number of security features -- ACLs and encrypted filesystems, for example -- that Linux and the BSDs lack or require special patches for. But security features are not what most users are looking for; they want security, plain and simple. Linux and the BSDs offer that more reliably (unless Bill Gates's recent conversion to the creed of high security is matched by growing adherents throughout Microsoft).

We must also remember that new features do not change user behavior the moment they're released; they take some time to percolate through the ground and up the root systems of the user community. In particular, programmers are people, too. They require time to learn about new features, recognize their benefits (if any), and upgrade their applications. Each delay reduces the utility of a feature upgrade.

Please understand that I believe in evolution. But the changes that make people feel an urgent need to upgrade are those that radically reform their jobs and their ways of interacting, such as graphical interfaces, the Web, and cross-platform code development. These sorts of innovation can occur in both free and proprietary software. In contrast, incremental change is not a big selling point.

I have not yet discussed ease of use, a measure where free software presumably doesn't come off so well -- at least for new and nonprofessional users. The FLOSS study addressed this in a couple criteria, especially "Cost savings regarding training and introduction of users," which predictably came out low as a reason for using free software.

In general, free software has still not achieved the widespread familiarity of Microsoft software. In a recent analysis regarding the elusive "Total Cost of Ownership" (TCO) measure, the analysts noted the familiarity of Microsoft software as one of its main advantages. More exposure to free software can close the gap.

The FLOSS study itself throws up its hands when dealing with TCO. They report that companies "were generally unable to provide even rough estimates about the monetary value derived from using open source software," even concerning "simple questions like license fee savings or hardware cost savings."

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