Free software, open source, and sustainability

Image by William White

I’m doing some work with Totara at the moment. Before I started, I had a couple of conversations with their CEO, Richard Wyles, as I didn’t fully understand their business model. I discovered that, instead of providing solutions directly to customers, they develop open source software for their partners, who then customise solutions for customers. Money flows back to Totara through partners to cover costs around development, administration, and co-ordination activities. Customers get access to the source code, and aren’t locked into a relationship with a vendor reliant on proprietary code.

The reason I wanted to know more about Totara’s model before starting work with them is because there’s been a lot of sensitivity around ‘openwashing’ over the last few years. Openwashing is whereby a company uses the language of the open source world, without actually adhering to its principles. You can read more about how to spot (and avoid) openwashing in this excellent article. It’s a contentious area and involves some interpretation.

Today, an article by Richard Wyles has been published on Entitled We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom, Wyles reiterates Richard Stallman‘s point around the true meaning of software freedom:

Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support.

In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.

The problem we’ve got here is partly one around semantics: Stallman focuses on the Free Software movement, which actually has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with liberty. Unless you really care about this stuff, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

In any case, it’s an article that’s worth reading. I’ll just pull out one more quotation from Wyles:

Many single-vendor commercial open source firms adopt [a] dual-licensing approach, with a free community version and a paid-for enterprise proprietary license. The risk here is that the company prioritizes the proprietary version, because that’s where their money comes from, and the community version is soon perceived as “crippleware” or even worse, “abandonware.” For example, SugarCRM suspended or slowed development on its Community Edition and now makes it clear that it is not suitable in a production environment. I’m not criticizing them—you have to earn enough to keep the lights on, right? But are they still an open source vendor?

This stuff is hard, but I’ve been persuaded in my conversations with Totara that not only are they not openwashing, but they’re actively trying to make open source software development into something that’s sustainable.

Photo by William White on Unsplash