Free Software is a viable business model.
by Jeremiah Foster
Apple has contributed to the free software ecosystem in a number of ways
besides just releasing software. By basing its operating
system on NeXT, parts of the BSD operating system, and GNU software, Apple has demonstrated that a commercial operating system based on Free Software is a viable business model.
Free Software is adaptable to a variety of business models, you can even
sell Apache or the GIMP if you want to. Download it, burn it to CD, and
sell the CDs. You may not make a lot of money because everyone else can
do this too, but there is nothing stopping you legally.
The new PC-BSD distribution is similar in many ways to Apple's OS X.
While Apple uses proprietary bits from NeXT along with Free Software,
PC-BSD uses FreeBSD 6. Apple has shown there is room for a variety of
UNIX-like platforms that serve a variety of users, PC-BSD is filling a
niche and further demonstrating the thriving nature of the free software
ecosystem. Perhaps there is a direct connection between PC-BSD and
Apple, perhaps certain Apple hackers have hacked a bit on the PC-BSD
code or fixed bugs in the common code base they share. But most of all,
Apple's daring business model that recognized the superiority of UNIX
and Free Software showed that there is room for more than just Microsoft
in the computing world.
A couple of nits about terminology.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) people would likely take issue with your use of the term "Free Software" to describe Free Software/Open Source Software (F/OSS). Free Software, as exemplified by the GPL license, requires reciprocality. If you build software based on GPL'd software, you must also release it under the GPL.
Open Source Software, on the other hand, is a broader term that usually refers to software licensed under one of the Open Source Initiative's approved licenses. These licenses vary in many respects, and in fact the GPL is OSI-approved. However, many OSI-approved licenses such as the Apache and the Open Software License, are considered by the FSF to be incompatible with the GPL for various reasons.
Unless you are specifically referring to the GPL and other licenses with a reciprocality requirement, use of the term "Open Source" when referring collectively to the broad range of open source licenses might be a safer bet.
I refer you to the Wikipedia definition of Free Software, which shows "Open Source" to be a separate term. In fact, Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, urges people not to use the term "Open Source."
As far as reciprocity is concerned, it is encapsulated in the eventual release of the software. That is to say, if you release it you have to ensure the same freedoms you received. But you do not have to release it. And, you can in fact, sell it; provided you give the source code and the license as well.
So when I say "Free Software" in this blog post, I mean "Free Software" and not "Open Source."
Jeremiah, I stand corrected. I was conflating the FSF's use of the term "Free Software" with the GPL, which is, as you correctly pointed out, inaccurate. There are plenty of licenses the FSF considers to be "free" while not meeting the FSF's standards for GPL compatibility.
Personally I would still use the term "open source" to refer to the non-proprietary licenses Apple has used (Apache, BSD, GPL, et al), because it does seem that the FSF's intent is to push the GPL, but the OSI folks are more interested in providing a broader array of licensing choices. Thus, use of the term "Free Software" to me brings to mind only FSF-blessed licenses, which in the case of Apple's use of non-proprietary software, is inaccurate.
Your point about reciprocity is taken. I should have said, "if you release software based on GPL'd software, you must also release it under the GPL.