Europe Takes a Deeper Look at Free/Libre and Open-Source Software

by Fred Noronha

The final report on Free/Libre and Open-Source Software (FLOSS) from the International Institute of Infonomics at the University of Maastricht, The Netherlands is being viewed as a "major research project" coming out of Europe. The report takes a detailed look at the reasons behind the growing use of free and open-source software. Commentators have already called this study perhaps the "first large-scale, rigorous study concerning any aspect of free software". It included interviews with thousands of developers and hundreds of businesses.

One of the key persons behind this study is Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who moved from the Indian capital of New Delhi to Europe a couple of years ago. Before moving, the 27-year-old Indian-born was involved in the Indian internet/telecom scene. He also wrote for technical and mainstream publications. In addition, Ghosh had his own newsletter, "Indian Techonomist", that went out to people such as Reed Hundt and Vint Cerf. At the request of senior Indian government officials, he contributed various consultation papers concerning opening up internet policy, especially to small providers.

So does Aiyer Ghosh believe the FLOSS report will change the way free and open-source software is perceived? "Not necessarily", he says but then adds, almost as an afterthought, "but hopefully the study will increase the depth and clarity with which the phenomenon is understood."

The extracts below are taken from an exclusive interview between Aiyer Ghosh and myself.

Fred: What was your part in preparing the report?

Aiyer: I wrote the original proposal and workplan for the FLOSS study. After it received approval from the EC (European Community), I was coordinator of the project consortium (University of Maastricht and Berlecon Research). I also was lead author of the parts written at the university.

Fred: In total, how much time was put into it?

Aiyer: FLOSS was a 13-month project. Three people at the university and three others at Berlecon Research were working on it. But off-hand, I can't give you a person/hours breakdown.

Fred: What was the most surprising finding(s)?

Aiyer: That's a hard question to answer. We really weren't surprised by our own findings, but from the user survey (Berlecon; final report part 1) the level of FLOSS use among organisations was higher than one might have expected. For example, 6% of all companies use some form of FLOSS on the desktop.

An important, though expected, finding was license fees came in as #3 on the list of reasons for user organisations choosing FLOSS; stability and security were [the only things] more important.

In the developer survey (part 4), one interesting result was, despite the adoption of the term "open source" among most of the media and support structure (e.g., O'Reilly, Slashdot, Sourceforge), developers themselves identify with the term free software by a huge margin.

Fred: What aspects of FLOSS are still to be researched, in your view?

Aiyer: Much more work needs to be done on measuring the organisation and production of the software itself (started in part 5 of the report). Lots of analysis remains to be done on the data from the developer survey.

On the user side, due to a limited budget, FLOSS didn't ask organisations who said they don't use any FLOSS why they don't, which would have been interesting.

Fred: The dilemma of explaining why affluent Europe increasingly is turning to FLOSS--how would you look at it?

Aiyer: I don't see that as a dilemma.

I can imagine that license fee savings are attractive for developing countries, but arguably the total cost of ownership isn't necessarily much lower for FLOSS than it is for proprietary solutions.

Certainly, most advocacy in Europe emphasises other advantages rather than cost, which is a dubious advantage if it is one at all. And it's easier to attack: cheap software must be bad.

As the user survey showed, FLOSS is being adopted more for stability and security than price.

Fred: Besides this study, what have you been busy with since moving out of India?

Aiyer: I moved to Maastricht in October 2000, and the FLOSS proposal was submitted that month. I've been working mostly full-time with this study and related research. I speak frequently on the topic of free software and the "cooking-pot market" model I developed to explain non-monetary economic activity on the Internet. (Here's his explanation of the "cooking-pot model".)

I also continue my involvement as a founding editor of First Monday, the now successful peer-reviewed internet journal. I also organised the first First Monday conference in Maastricht last year.

Fred: Do you see this report as changing the way FLOSS is perceived?

Aiyer: Not necessarily, but hopefully the study will increase the depth and clarity with which the phenomenon is understood.

Fred: Could you tell us something about how you chose the word--rather apt in my view--FLOSS, to describe both free software and open source in one neat turn of phrase?

Aiyer: European Commission projects often have long-winded titles and the official project acronym is therefore quite important.

Early drafts of the project proposal were entitled Free/Open Source User and Developer Study. FOSUDS sounded rather less catchy than FLOSS, which also had the additional advantage of incorporating "Libre Software", a term that is hardly in use outside the French-speaking members of the EC bureaucracy, which is a pity.

Fred: If you had a chance to do this study all over again, what would you have done differently?

I don't know, really; [I'm] still digesting what we've just finished. But certainly we would have asked user organisations for reasons not to use FLOSS.

See the full text of the report at

Fred Noronha is a freelance journalist in Goa, India.

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