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Free speech, free beer and free software

Tracing the evolution of open source, Sun Microsystems exec Simon Phipps explains why the common assumption that this software carries a zero price tag has led to more than a small bit of confusion in the computing world.

On the Internet, software wants to be free. But as the Free Software Foundation and many others point out, the word "free" here is not about price; it is about liberty.

"Free" is used as in the phrase "free speech" (a right we covet), rather than the phrase "free beer" (always too good to be true) or "free kitten" (which sounds good, but has a high overhead).

Confusion arises because free software mostly has a zero price tag as a natural consequence of the original license, the GPL, that enforces the liberty of developers to use code created by their peers. The innovation of the Open Source Initiative was to provide new, more business-friendly licenses. By suggesting alternatives to GPL licensing, it enabled hybrid open-source/closed-source works.

The early years of open source have thus focused on free (as in beer) software, so it is still possible to misunderstand. But we have seen a definite shift in thinking. The open-source community has welcomed companies that build commercial enterprises, as long as they act symbiotically rather than parasitically. Today it is clear that open source has matured.

What distinguishes projects like Apache, NetBeans and Linux is less the price tag but rather the eclectic inclusiveness.

The key values of the Internet flow from the mesh of participants, which Metcalfe's Law observes as leading to an exponentially growing pool of potential relationships. Complementing that are loosely coupled, open, royalty-free standards, allowing all to participate at the linear-growing cost of connection to the standards rather than the exponentially growing cost of negotiating each relationship.

This exponential-relationship, linear-cost world is termed the "Net Effect" and has been the primary energy source of the Internet revolution from its inception.

The Web resulted from the Net Effect, and today we need a development and deployment methodology that harnesses it. Open source provides the ideal, loosely coupled yet rigorous environment for the massively connected community.

What distinguishes projects like Apache, NetBeans and Linux is less the price tag but rather the eclectic inclusiveness. If a standard is a technology where the community affected by changes controls the changes, then open source will underpin standards in this century.

Open source is not without cost. Someone has to underwrite the community. Developers have to donate their time and expertise. Sun's experience of underwriting NetBeans and OpenOffice.org (and others) has involved commercial and individual end users and developers cooperating with generosity to build the platform on which their solutions can be delivered.

The evolution of these projects has revealed the existence of a commercially valid business model based on open source. It has become the development methodology of the Net Effect.

It's not about free stuff.
In the evolved open-source development model, a "community of code" maintains an open-source code base, preferably itself evolved "in the open." It uses behaviors and principles well documented elsewhere, which inherently lead to better code faster, not least because of the scrutiny of the community. These benefits are obtained as long as there is a viable community of interested parties to create, maintain and improve the code.

From the "community of code," a gatekeeper function emerges, operating with implicit community consent. The gatekeeper embodies the will of the community to set bounds for the project and creates the "reference implementation." Changes are made infrequently enough to ensure stability for solutions above, while paying regard to work in the community below. This gatekeeper is the key to success for the evolved open-source model, bridging community informality with the stability needed by commercial enterprise.

Above the reference implementation is the crucial dividing line between the code foundation and solution offerings that depend on it. The licenses used below the line foster and protect the community; those above the line facilitate commercial success. Drawing the line is the great art; the balance between community and commerce differs for every project.

Open or closed?
The experience of Sun and others is that open source provides ideal development and business models for today's Net Effect economy. It's not about free stuff; it's about enfranchising every user and development community member. Today's software innovations need this model more than ever before. With an open foundation, companies can gain their just compensation for their innovations "above the line," but the subtle lock-in offered by our traditional understanding of "standards" is largely avoided.

Most importantly, open source is not just about code; it is about community. You don't make a project open source just with a license. It takes the costly and time-consuming birthing of a community of code, a trusted gatekeeper function and a series of symbiotic commercial enterprises to make true open source. 21st century open source is not free.

But it is liberating.