Software Libre and Commercial Viability
Obviously, independent consultants don't cover all the needs of computer users. Several activities can't be handled by individuals. Red Hat and S.u.S.E. are demonstrating that creating and maintaining a distribution can be a good source of revenue even when the product is freely redistributable. Debian-based efforts are on the way, although less advanced—mainly because both Red Hat and S.u.S.E. bundled proprietary products with Linux in order to survive while the market share was low, while Debian is completely detached from proprietary products.
In addition to “creating and packaging” jobs, open-source companies can specialize in technical support, covering the situations where computer systems are of critical importance. Big business realities using computer systems in their productive environment won't be satisfied with either the external consultant or the in-house technician. They need to rely on an external structure that guarantees round-the-clock operation of their technological aids.
Even if GNU/Linux or any other operating system is demonstrated to be completely reliable, power users will need to rely on a support company as a form of insurance. The more important computers are for a production environment, the more people are willing to pay to be reassured that everything will go on working and to have someone “responsible” to call in case of any failure. Such a “power user” support contract could also include a provision for refunds in case of down time. Big support companies will be able to efficiently deal with it, and clients will be happy to pay high rates if they never need to call for assistance.
In short, I see no need for software companies to sell any product; the support environment is big enough to offer good business positions in Information Technologies. Those at the top could use some of the revenue to pay for free software development, thus gaining access to the best software before anyone else and associating their name with software products. As a matter of fact, this practice is already pursued by the big distributions.
Needless to say, schools and universities have the best interest in teaching information technologies using free software tools. Due to its technical superiority, free software environments have more to offer to the students, but also need more technical knowledge to be proficiently administered. I see no money saved here in choosing free operating systems over proprietary ones, but educational entities could better spend their money on hiring system administrators than on subsidizing some already-too-big commercial software company. While my country, Italy, is stuck with a few rules that offer more support for buying things rather than for increasing human resources, other countries are already moving in the right direction—Mexico and France, for example, have announced plans to use Linux in their public schools.
One more point leads toward free software in education: when students get jobs, they prefer to use tools they learned at school in order to minimize extra learning efforts. This fact should lead colleges to teach only those tools not owned by anyone—those that are libre. Schools should teach proprietary software only if two conditions apply: no viable alternative is available, and the company that distributes such software pays the school for teaching its product. Paying someone for a product and then freely advertising it for him is definitely nonsense.
A few social issues relate to choosing one software model over another one. Although I mark them as social, they have economic implications as well.
While free software is not cheaper than proprietary software if you bill for your own time, some environments use different rates in converting time to money. Most emerging countries have good intellectual resources but little money, and they usually have many not-so-new computers as well. Proprietary operating systems are unaffordable for them, but free solutions are viable and productive. Actually, the “Halloween” document from Microsoft underlines that Linux is growing very fast in the Far East. Charity organizations usually have this same environment—little money and a good amount of human resources. This leads straight to the free software model for any IT requirement.
These ideas will probably suggest that free availability of information looks fairly leftist in spirit, as “information to the masses” looks quite similar to the old adage “power to the masses”. What is usually ignored is the strong rightist flavour of the Open Source movement. The free software arena is fiercely meritocratic and a perfect environment for free competition, where the laws of the market ensure that only the best ideas and the best players survive. Proprietary standards, on the other hand, tend to diminish competition by decreasing innovation and consolidating previous results.