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Open source: Why we can't just give this stuff away

Open source is free. Open source is often better. So why isn't it flying off the shelves?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes has a great post over on Datamation entitled, "Linux...Why is it So Hard to Give It Away?". He addresses the difficulty in getting retailers to sell cheap Linux-based PCs, and decides that the problem is the support burden: It's easier to offload that to Microsoft than to undertake it to save a few dollars:

Problem is, a price difference of even $50 at the lower end of the price spectrum could mean that consumers would be leaping onto the Linux wagon based on how much cash they have in their pockets instead of making a rational choice. Customers would be happy when they left the store but soon feel unhappy when problems bogged down their use of the new PC.

Good points, but I'm more interested in the larger, underlying question:

Why is giving away something for free such hard work?

Need an exceptional database? Try MySQL. Winning customer relationship management system? SugarCRM. Email/collaboration server? Zimbra.

And so on. All of these have free (as in both freedom and as in price) versions of their software. In many cases, even the free version is better than commercial equivalents. So why do people continue to pay for proprietary software?

Yes, there's still some muddled, legacy thinking that "open source" equals "not so great," but that foolish notion is fading fast. I think the real answer lies in market inertia: People don't change quickly and will continue to make the same, wrong decisions for the foreseeable future. Slowly, open source will come to dominate, as even Gartner now recognizes.

In the meantime, it's still a tough (but enjoyable and profitable) slog. Some day all software will be open source in some fashion. Until then, enjoy the trenches.