June 21, 2008

Open Source : A Personal Perspective

My students at the Praxis Business School are forever curious to know why I am such an ardent user of open source products -- particularly Open Office. If the whole world is using -- or is perceived to use -- MS Office, why is it that I have this aversion to MS Word, MS PowerPoint and MS Excel ? Of greater interest is their concern that by using -- and advocating -- Open Source, are they jeopardising their own career prospects in the software industry ? Will companies that thrive on selling software blacklist them -- at campus interviews -- if they are perceived to be too enamoured about Open Source. My response is as follows ...
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# We need to have a clear understanding of what is meant by Open Source ..

1. Open source is not necessarily free software. Actually the Hindi nomenclature is more explicit in this regard. Open <=> Mukt, whereas Free <=> Muft !
2. When you "buy" software, or obtain "free" software through a legal channel, you get the rights to use the software. You do not get ownership rights on the source code nor the rights to modify and redistribute it. So from a legal perspective, there is no difference between free software and paid software ... except that the numerical value on the invoice is zero for free software. That is an accounting issue, not a legal one.
3. When you obtain and use open source software, you get ownership and redistribution rights ( may be in a restricted form, depending on the license) on the source code. From a legal perspective, this is significantly different from stance taken in point 2 above
4. Not all open source software is free, but in a vast majority of cases they are.
5. Why do people create open source software ? What is the business model ... that is a long story by itself. As a user of Open Source, that is not my concern. I will leave it to those who develop Open Source software to answer that question.

# Why do I use and support Open Source ?

1. This is no case for 'religious zeal' -- eg Jihaad! -- nor is it a case of secular chauvinism -- not a India Pakistan cricket match
2. I use open source because it is (generally) free -- so I do not have to pay money : pure pragmatism ! you could say that my real interest is in Free ( or muft ) software and not really Open ( or mukt) stuff .. but in most cases the distinction is blurred.
3. I use open source because it helps me save cost in a legal manner !! I have my sense of ethics, I do not wish to use pirated software and be identified ( even if only to myself) as a thief !!
4. I use open source because most of what i do in open source is perfectly compatible ( and interoperable) with what my friends, colleagues, customers, and others do .. so there is no loss of productivity or convenience. For every piece of popular commercial software, there is a corresponding OSS implementation ( with the only exception being Visio !)
5. Net-net : Open source is (usually) free and equally useful .. so why pay ? unless you are a moron ... OR you simply want the luxury of a Business Class seat in an airline when you know jolly well that the Economy Class seat will take you to the same destination in exactly the same time
6. I feel extremely irritated when people tell me that using OSS is too complex and difficult. Given the obvious advantages of open source, you should jolly well learn how to use it. How would you react if someone told you that he uses snail mail or land lines ... because he feels that email or cell phones is too complex to use ? I would (like to) give him tight slap and tell him to get real ...
7. Finally i cannot tolerate arrogant bullies in the neighbourhood ... whether it is BSNL or Microsoft !! and GSM and OSS are good tools to poke and prod at these beasts !! So other things being equal, I love to use these tools to the extent possible.

# Open Source @ Praxis

1. A college or an university should introduce ideas to a student ... not be seen as a way to indoctrinate students to a line of thought ...
2. Hence neither Praxis nor the IT club should be seen as evangelising OSS as the only way to nirvana ... individual members of the club can take on this evangelist role as long as the club allows the other point of view to be articulated as well. Now if there is no one else to champion the other point of view ... there is not much I can do about it. But we will never actively oppose commercial software.
3. I am not unduly worried about software companies being allergic to OSS ... in fact other than Microsoft all other companies would be quite enthusiastic to hire anyone who has a deep experience with OSS ... and even Microsoft in not uniformly evil !! they will certainly have a fair sprinkling of good people who will certainly appreciate OSS type folks ... though that may not be case for the Microsoft Marketing Mafia who are trained to be as rigidly monotheistic as any of the three middle eastern religions.
4. Within these parameters, i suppose you can do what you want as long as you do not violate either the Laws of Physics or the Indian Penal Code.

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