The Software Commons

The open source software revolution is just heating up. Though some would portray it as a destroyer of intellectual property, the truth is that it is a chance for companies to work together to save billions of dollars and retain the intellectual property that is truly important to them.

The Software Commons
Where Is Open Source Taking Us?

Though the GNU project has existed since 1984, the notion of thousands of developers collaborating remotely on software projects was inconceivable before the Internet came along. The rules of business haven’t changed; companies still need to turn a profit. The rules of software, however, have changed. This article explores how open source software is creating a “software commons” that will significantly alter the landscape of the software industry.

Many articles that talk about the philosophy of open source and Free Software are polarizing in nature. They either advocate open source as the absolute best way to do things, or they blast open source for not being compatible with the ways in which businesses operate. I contend that there is plenty of room for open source, commercial and internal software projects.


I will use the term “open source” in this article to refer to software that is distributed at no cost and with source code included. You will often see the term “Free Software”, which refers specifically to software that is released under a GNU General Public License-compatible licensing scheme. For more information about the GNU GPL, check out

Everybody Uses Software

The majority of American businesses today rely on some software for their operation. Nearly every office worker uses a computer that is minimally stocked with an operating system and word processor. Many also use spreadsheets, databases and presentation software. It is commonly held belief that most users don’t use even half of the features that these programs provide, and that a subset of features would meet the needs of most. Even though Microsoft continues to release new versions of Office, for most people there is no compelling reason to upgrade.
The statistics show that at least 80% of operating systems and office productivity software in use are Microsoft products. With virtually every user in every company running Windows and Office, it can be argued that the competitive advantage of owning Windows and Office is essentially nil. Not possessing any software would certainly put a company at a disadvantage, but generally speaking as long as people have the basic software tools, they can do what they need to do. (I’ll talk about the specifics in the section Barriers to Entry.)
You’re Paying Too Much
If you accept the general idea that basic office productivity software does not provide a competitive advantage, it would seem that spending $300 (Windows and Office combined) plus support costs and periodic upgrades per office worker is a tremendous expense. There’s no question that businesses need this software to operate efficiently, but if they could spend considerably less and not be at a disadvantage, you can bet they would jump at the chance.
The Software Commons

Almost all business computer users will need a baseline set of functionality that includes: operating system services, web browsing, email, word processing, spreadsheet, database, and business presentations. Because these applications are needed by everyone, but essentially provide zero competitive advantage, I call them the Software Commons. Ultimately, software that is part of the Commons will no longer require a paid license, because that business model is not in the best interests of the customers.

Over time, the Software Commons will undoubtedly grow to include additional software packages. Certainly, there are far more open source programs out there than just the few types I list above. That list is just the few categories that you’re likely to find on 99% of the office computers in use. Free and open source tools that help programmers develop software are already in common use, and that is helping the growth of the Software Commons for everyone.
There’s No Such Thing As Free
In the future, companies will no longer “buy” software from the Software Commons. That does not mean that their software-related spending will drop to zero, however. Support and training costs will continue to exist as they have before, and some money will need to be spent on the development of the software. However, the total spent by a given organization on this category of software will fall considerably.

First of all, it is worth noting that many contributors to open source projects do so because they are interested in the software. They don’t expect any kind of financial reward for the work. Businesses, of course, can’t operate that way for very long.

Many businesses employ programmers who develop custom software for their companies. These developers can add features that users in their business need or find useful. By releasing their changes back to the Commons, they benefit because others will help find bugs in the software and make improvements that build upon the changes they created.

Can this work? Is it sustainable?

Yes, because it will save businesses money and get them the features they need more quickly. They buy the support they need and fund the development of specific features that they want.

Isn’t this all a bit communistic? Why would one company spend their money to do something when they can just let others spend their money?

Keep in mind that, as mentioned earlier, we’re talking about software that doesn’t represent a competitive advantage for the company. By putting their money into furthering the Software Commons, they are improving the software in ways that are useful specifically to themselves. By releasing the software to the public, the changes that they have invested in will be improved by others.

Paying For Services
The Software Commons will be supported by service-oriented organizations. This is in sharp contrast to the product-oriented companies that drive software today. Some software companies today are already talking about a world in which software is sold as a service. However, the world that they are projecting is one in which use of the software itself is a paid service, and one in which companies will spend at least as much as they do today. For the baseline set of features, I contend that people will not pay anything beyond support and training services that they use and any specific features that they want to help fund the development of.
Companies like Red Hat earn their living providing services and products based around the open source development. As the Software Commons continues to mature, these companies will offer additional support, training and development services that appeal to corporate customers. I envision a company like Red Hat building custom packages of Linux software for use on all of a large company’s desktop and laptop computers, and building other packages for computer makers like Dell.
Other companies may develop custom features for OpenOffice.
Barriers to Entry
Changing the status quo in large companies is difficult and the perceived benefit needs to significantly outweigh the cost and risks. Some barriers and how they may be overcome are:

  • Training
    Millions of people are familiar with Microsoft Windows and Office. Training them to work with a completely new user interface for all of the software they use can present a huge challenge and expense.
    Many people have come to accept Macintosh and Windows user interfaces as “intuitive”. The reality is that people are used to those interfaces. By providing interfaces that will be familiar to users, the transition to the new software will be significantly eased. Many user interface elements from Windows are already in place in Linux environments, with improvements in some areas. Several popular Windows applications have work-alike open source versions.
    Unless the graphical user interface and applications are exact clones of Windows, significant training work will be needed. Companies that have an interest in seeing the Software Commons succeed will doubtless work to make the training burden as minimal as possible to increase the size of their customer base.
  • File compatibility
    In the 80s, there was a small industry built around software conversion tools, so that people could read their Visicalc files in Lotus 1-2-3 or their WordStar files in WordPerfect. If anything, file compatibility is more important today than ever, as employees from different organizations share files via email and extranets.
    Developers of open source software appear to recognize this, because there are a few projects that assist in compatibility with Microsoft Office files. Data files for software programs are increasingly being stored in XML formats, or can be exported to XML formats. XML will be significantly easier for developers to work with as they work on compatibility among programs.
  • Software compatibility
    There are many more software packages available for purchase for Windows than there are for Linux. There are whole categories of software that are not currently available for Linux. Most popular PC games will not run under Linux. However, this article is primarily focused on the needs of business users. Since the Software Commons includes the applications needed by most business users, the biggest issue would be custom applications developed to automate business processes. Over the past few years, many custom applications have migrated from being Windows-based client/server applications to being web-based. Those applications will not pose any problem. The companies that would likely have the most work to do in migrating to an open source platform would be the ones that standardized on applications built around Microsoft Exchange and Visual Basic.

    The rest of this article is currently missing. I’ll try to resurrect…

2 thoughts on “The Software Commons”

  1. There seem to be 3 rationales for open source software:

    1. Open source software can usually be acquired for free so it is cheaper than commercial software.

    2. Open source software gives the user power to add features and fix bugs so it is more flexible than commercial software.

    3. Open source software profits from a “virtuous cycle” which gets bugs identified and fixed faster so it is of higher quality than commercial software.

    On examining my own behavior, I clearly choose open source software for rationale #1. Getting software for free makes acquiring the software easier and faster.

    For me, rationale #2 is a lesser but significant motivation. Often, I will use source code with a very lenient license and refactor it, rather than writing from scratch. As a programmer, I appreciate rationale #2. As a user, however, I don’t care much about rationale #2. Thus, rationale #2 plays a significant role for components and code snippets but is unimportant for larger apps like Apache, MySQL and so on.

    For me, rationale #3 does not play a significant role. In my experience, open source software is neither of higher quality nor of lower quality generally than commercial software. My brief experiences with submitting patches have also convinced me that creating patches is very time consuming and it is hard to recoup the time spent in getting my patches into the official source tree. In my opinion, the “virtuous cycle” is a myth: the code for most open source projects is dominated by a small cabal of maintainers, similar to a commercial project, and outsiders neither have the deep knowledge to contribute nor the perserverence to shepherd a patch through the cumbersome process of getting it added to the official code base.

  2. I think for many individuals, your rationale #1 is indeed probably the driving factor. For many businesses, though, the cost of software licenses is only one piece of the equation (as Microsoft is always keen to point out). An organization with tens of thousands of employees might very well be able to justify getting a couple of programmers up to speed with OpenOffice so that they can control improvements that happen to the package.

    Additionally, some projects are better architected than others to be extensible. Eclipse, which is not a wholly great example since it’s a programmer’s tool, comes to mind because of its powerful plugin capabilities.

    I’m certain that the number of committers on a project will always be low, and the number of people submitting code changes will be a small percentage of the total user base. As big companies (and governments) start adopting open source on a large scale, I think there will be an increase in the number of $$$ flowing into development of open source, be it through internal programmers or contracts with the main project maintainers. That’s where the virtuous cycle really begins. And I do think it’s a matter of “when” big companies start adopting open source, rather than “if” they will.

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