Friday, December 22, 2006

Are Free Tools Really Free?

This blog post is a response to another blog post by the same title. Initially it was posted as a comment...

Not so fast Jens...

There are at least 2 problems with your assertion being blanket (noting the use of the word NEVER).

1) Bundling costs with other optional extras you bought from 3rd party people.
2) Free as in "Free beer" vs "free" as in "freedom" need to be clarified. Go read up http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libre or http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

BUNDLING COSTS TOGETHER
You point of view is suffering from tunnel vision and only concerns itself with the cost of producing something (using ?free? software). Granted, productivity is never free, but you are confusing the cost of a service with the cost of tools. They are separate things, the software itself is still free - and the support is still optional.

A lot of software is cost free (as in free beer). If gives you something at no charge, then it is free. Lets say I went to a festival, and someone was handing out free plain white T-shirts. The T-shirts would be free. If I decided I want my T-shirt to be embroided by another person and that cost me $10, then the T-shirt is still free, it is the embroidery that costs me $10.

Why take a different view of the software world?

If I download software at no cost from eclipse.org then the software is free. If I go buy some support for it from a 3rd party, then the software is still free but the support has cost me money.

Trying to enmesh the different suppliers and declaring the free stuff to be part of the total bill is like hiring some developers, using eclipse (or netbeans) and then claiming that the software has cost you the wages of the developers. You would have to prove measured inferiority to an alternative costly tool and prove that extra help was needed. Even then, you are drawing a long bow.

FREE VS FREE
A lot of the time I use free software because it is un-encumbered by licencing "issues" which may affect the cost of time or effort to deploy. Usually commercial licences come with a burden on the user to go through a financial transaction before having access to the functionality, sometimes this is inconvenient, and sometimes it poses a risk to the viability of a project (and therefore and productivity related outcome).

IN CLOSING

There is a lot to be said for free software on many levels, but there is always some cynical smarty pants who thinks they know how to count beans that others can't see. It's not original any more. It costs time to read, and is of no appreciable value. It also has a negative effect on the altruistic human desire for people to donate their free time to write software for the benefit of the community.

Eclipse might be "free" for reasons other than altruism, but MyEclipse wouldn't be able to support their high feature/cost ratio if the eclipse platform were not cost free to begin with.

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