Monday, July 09, 2007

No, Linux is Free

Marc Wagner rolls out the conventional wisdom in "Don't be fooled, Linux is not free," a response to Christopher Dawson's "Linux definitely has a place in education post." This is all a little confusing because Wagner's post appears on Dawson's Education IT blog on ZDNet, making it seem like Dawson is rebutting itself until you check the byline.

As is often the case, there are so many problems and inaccuracies in this post, it is difficult to organize a response. I'll make a specific point and then a more general response Wagner's approach.

Wagner writes:

The quote from Chris Dawson’s piece presents two false assumptions:

1. That education IT pays substantially more for one operating system solution than it does for another. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Educational and corporate discounts bring the price of commercial Windows and Macintosh licenses in line with desktop Linux licenses. This pricing parity extends itself to server licenses as well.

It is a little difficult to know what the apples and oranges would be in this comparison. I think it is hard to dispute this observation from the inACCESS initiative:

The sustainability model for the Indiana ACCESS project relies on keeping costs as low as possible for schools. Using Linux as the operating system and open source for the application stack, we have been able to keep software costs to about $13-$18 per machine per year. This includes software update support. The traditional model for similar software would cost more than $200 per computer.

If we aren't trying to include the application stack, and just OS licensing cost, then Linux is still cheaper, because the licensing cost is $0. If we include utilities necessary to run the operating system, such as anti-virus and spyware protection necessary to run Windows, the difference is even greater. If we are trying to compare OS licensing plus a commercial service contract, the gap probably narrows, but I'd be shocked if it disappeared if the level of service is truly equivalent. I'd say the burden of proof would have to be on the person claiming the costs and values are the same.

My broader beef is with Wagner's title. "Don't be fooled..." Who is doing the fooling? Linux is free. This is objectively true. It is both free as in freedom and you can get a copy of Ubuntu or many other distributions at no cost. This is not a trick. It isn't like a "free phone" where you are locked into a service agreement. It isn't even like a "free car" where you can't avoid paying for registration, insurance, etc. Yes, if you want professional service you have to pay for it, but nobody has ever claimed otherwise, and I doubt anyone believes that. It is a straw man argument which is deployed to create the impression that the "free" in "free software" is a trick. It is a dishonest tactic.

Wagner winds up his post with an attempt to re-establish proprietary software as the choice of the serious minded CIO:

Education IT personnel need to think like CIOs — seeking cost-effective solutions to well-defined needs built upon three-to-five-year life-cycles. Inexperienced education IT personnel tend to think like consumers trying to make today’s best buy “work” without regard to future needs instead of considering the long-term TCO of what appears at first glance to be the cheaper solution. Which are you?

First off, I'm unimpressed by the implication that thinking three to five years ahead is "long term." Anyone who looks into research or case studies into making a transition to Linux and free software knows that the transition itself will take three to five years, and in that time the one-time transition costs will reduce the cost savings. The real savings come further out, after the transitional period, after staff has been retrained, systems migrated, etc.

The CIO who is really thinking strategically is also anticipating the network and platform effects that will come over time from Linux and other free software taking an ever-increasing share of the global educational IT market. More schools, foundations, governments and corporations will be developing free applications designed to work on a free software stack. Schools which develop the technical infrastructure and intellectual capacity to take advantage of this will be able to provide ever increasing levels of service at lower cost. Think iTALC, for example, free software developed for German schools and now widely used in Indiana. That's the kind of play the truly strategic CIO is positioning himself for.

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