European Union Researches the Benefits of Open Source
by Andy Oram
Editor's Note: Andy Oram reports on the possible
implications of a recent study that explored the
reasons behind the widespread use of, and support for,
free and open source software.
A major research project under the name Free/Libre and
Open Source Software: Survey and Study, or FLOSS,
recently explored reasons behind the widespread use
of, and support for, free and open source software.
This is, to my knowledge, the first large-scale,
rigorous study concerning any aspect of free software.
It involves interviews with thousands of developers
and hundreds of businesses, with carefully-chosen
questions and a correlation of results.
Equally significant is the funder of the study: the
European Union. These government representatives have
displayed a growing curiosity about, and sympathy for,
the free software phenomenon; see, for instance, the
recent announcement concerning OpenEvidence, a project
in digital certificates and signatures. The EU is an
excellent body to sponsor a sympathetic but demanding
inquiry into the purposes and processes of free
software development. (The study was carried out for
the EU by Berlecon Research GmbH and the University of
Maastricht. The business survey involved only European
participants, but the developer survey was worldwide.)
This article, like most of mine, will involve a modest
portion of summary accompanied by an ample serving of
my own impressions and analysis.
Slow and Steady
The burning question many people bring to this survey
-- whether friend or foe -- is: "Why would
organizations choose to use free software?" We know
that the "free as in beer" aspect of free software
appeals to underdeveloped countries (see recent news
items from Peru and Venezuela, along with China's Red
Flag Linux). But in more affluent Europe, price is not
the issue. Over and over in the FLOSS study,
organizations place cost savings low on their list of
reasons for choosing free software. Ideological
reasons will be discussed later in this article.
Overwhelmingly, the highest ranking reasons for using
free software center on quality:
Better access protection
Admittedly, "better price-to-performance ratio" turns
up with a high rating. But the survey notes that true
cost comparisons are hard to make with any confidence.
Organizations also like the absence or low burden of
license fees, but I'm not sure that this is a cost
issue. Organizations might simply want to avoid the
pain in the ass of predicting needs, negotiating with
the vendor, dealing with malfunctioning license
servers, and so on.
Still, quality issues clearly trump cost issues in the
FLOSS survey. This is powerful ammunition for
activists fighting the old misconception, still far
too prevalent, that free software is a poor man's
consolation for the lack of funds to buy really good
Looking deeper, I find another lesson in this
confidence expressed by businesses and nonprofits. The
relatively slow pace of development in free software
is one of its strengths. Proprietary software
companies have earned a terrible reputation over many
decades for shoveling in check-off boxes as fast as
marketing representatives can think them up. Bugs
inevitably abound. Users complain about bloatware and
features that merely get in their way, as well as
trying to fix bugs by upgrading to the next feature
release and getting more bugs.
Perhaps this is why MySQL is gaining market share,
even though it started off quite feature-poor; MySQL
AB has taken its sweet time adding such basics as
transaction support and encrypted data transfers. What
they offer is rock-solid reliability (along with the
performance that one achieves by leaving out
Security, which is now on administrators' minds more
than ever, has always been understood to be a function
of stability and code quality. Modern Windows systems
have a number of security features -- ACLs and
encrypted filesystems, for example -- that Linux and
the BSDs lack or require special patches for. But
security features are not what most users are looking
for; they want security, plain and simple. Linux and
the BSDs offer that more reliably (unless Bill Gates's
recent conversion to the creed of high security is
matched by growing adherents throughout Microsoft).
We must also remember that new features do not change
user behavior the moment they're released; they take
some time to percolate through the ground and up the
root systems of the user community. In particular,
programmers are people, too. They require time to
learn about new features, recognize their benefits (if
any), and upgrade their applications. Each delay
reduces the utility of a feature upgrade.
Please understand that I believe in evolution. But the
changes that make people feel an urgent need to
upgrade are those that radically reform their jobs and
their ways of interacting, such as graphical
interfaces, the Web, and cross-platform code
development. These sorts of innovation can occur in
both free and proprietary software. In contrast,
incremental change is not a big selling point.
I have not yet discussed ease of use, a measure where
free software presumably doesn't come off so well --
at least for new and nonprofessional users. The FLOSS
study addressed this in a couple criteria, especially
"Cost savings regarding training and introduction of
users," which predictably came out low as a reason for
using free software.
In general, free software has still not achieved the
widespread familiarity of Microsoft software. In a
recent analysis regarding the elusive "Total Cost of
Ownership" (TCO) measure, the analysts noted the
familiarity of Microsoft software as one of its main
advantages. More exposure to free software can close
The FLOSS study itself throws up its hands when
dealing with TCO. They report that companies "were
generally unable to provide even rough estimates about
the monetary value derived from using open source
software," even concerning "simple questions like
license fee savings or hardware cost savings."
A sense of moral imperative concerning information
freedom motivates a lot of free software developers.
Nearly all of the programmers surveyed understood the
philosophical difference between "free software" and
"open source," as articulated by Richard M. Stallman
and the Free Software Foundation. Rishab Aiyer Ghosh,
chief writer of the FLOSS study, finds in the
developer results several thought-provoking
Although organizations trying to commercialize free
software (such as my own company, O'Reilly &
Associates) promote the term "open source," more of
the developers identify with the "free software" side
than the "open source" side (48 percent versus 38
Most "free software" developers were content to
coexist with the "open source" label, but 38 percent
of them -- 18 percent of all developers in the survey
-- took a stronger position and refused to identify
with the "open source" community. Furthermore, 38
percent of all developers agreed with the statement
that software should not be proprietary.
Participation in free software projects tends to
sharpen developers' philosophical and political
concerns. Belief that "software should not be a
proprietary good" and a desire to "limit the power of
large software companies" were larger motivations for
developers continuing to work on projects than they
had been in attracting these developers in the first
It would be interesting to imagine what would happen
to the open source movement if proprietary software
projects dried up. The demographic part of the FLOSS
survey showed that the majority of contributors to
free software are professional programmers. Most of
them work on open source projects as a hobby, often
for just a couple of hours a week. In short,
proprietary software provides an income for fully half
of the people who work on open source software. But
perhaps many of these programmers work on in-house
software rather than on commercially-sold software (a
point made by Eric Raymond in his essay "The Magic
Cauldron," published in The Cathedral & the Bazaar).
The researchers conducting the FLOSS study could not
detect much of a concern for moral issues in the
organizations using free software (whether commercial
or nonprofit). But my interpretation of the statistics
shows more of a groundswell of concern among customers
than the researchers allowed for.
The percentage of organizations that agreed with the
statement "We prefer using open source software --
that's part of our company policy" was low (19
percent), but still pretty impressive, when you
consider how rarely businesses take stands on
questions outside of purely-practical considerations.
Similarly, I consider it an achievement when 35
percent agree with the statement "By using open source
software we want to support the open source
On the other hand, I do not feel a sense of confidence
that companies take a moral position by allowing their
developers to contribute to open source projects
during work hours. While 36 percent say they allow it,
they could be doing so simply for pragmatic reasons.
The FLOSS researchers correlated organizations'
responses with many demographic characteristics, but
did not correlate the responses to particular
statements with responses to other statements. In any
survey, it is hard to draw conclusions about beliefs
and motives. So both the researchers and the readers
of the FLOSS survey are left guessing about the
meaning behind many responses, just as we are left
guessing why free software programmers (a whopping 48
percent) prefer the Debian GNU/Linux distribution far
more than any other operating system.
What about the availability of source code? Open
source's defining characteristic, it's been touted as
an unbeatable competitive advantage. Here the
researchers find very little interest among users. But
once again, I think they underestimate the importance
of the interest they do find. Some 12 percent of
organizations rate the openness of source code "very
important" (the percentage rises to 19 percent for
desktop software and Web sites) and an even greater
percentage rates it lower but still "important." I
think that 12 to 19 percent of a user base is quite
enough to create a supportive community, and is
competitively significant, as well.
It's no surprise that more companies are interested in
modifying their desktop software (which is currently
not too stable) and Web site software than their
operating system or database, just as a typical home
owner is more comfortable rehanging a window than
ripping out the plumbing.
Demographics and Personal Motives
The FLOSS study spends a good deal of time looking at
what kind of person writes free software, and why he
(because 99 percent of these developers are male)
chooses to do so. The results tend to validate another
recent study made by the Boston Consulting Group,
wherever the two studies overlap.
As mentioned earlier in this article, the majority of
contributors are professional programmers. Many can
boast an academic computer science background. They
tend to be young, but (contrary to popular belief in
some quarters) students do not predominate. A good
number of developers are in their thirties. These are
heavily represented among project leaders. But most
projects have only one or two contributors.
How about motivations? Non-monetary rewards, such as
respect in the community, are important. Both the
Boston Consulting Group and the FLOSS surveys also
found that one of the most popular reasons for joining
a project was to learn new skills.
And indeed, the investment of time pays off. A slight
majority -- if one includes indirect employment, such
as support -- earn some money from free software.
Perhaps it is not so remarkable that a majority of
contributors are convinced they take out of the
projects more than they give.
The FLOSS report is long but quite readable, and I
recommend exploring the subtleties of its reasoning
for yourself. While the results will interest anybody
who thinks about the prospects for the growth and
spread of free software, the FLOSS project is
ultimately about much more. Among the goals stated in
the survey's overview are:
"A better realization of political aims [presumably
those of the EU] in the context of open source
software" (p. 8)
"Identifying the impact of and recommending changes in
government policy and regulatory environments with
regards to OS/FS" (p. 3)
Drawing "broader" conclusions about "non-monetary and
trans-monetary activity in the information society,
beyond the domain of OS/FS" (p. 3)
The researchers are even mining the source code on a
huge number of open source projects to trace the
connections between the projects and their authors.
Although these efforts are tentative, someday they may
help to firm up our understanding of the unique
opportunities for education, code reuse, and
synergistic evolution presented when programmers
publish source code to the whole world.
Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates,
specializing in books on Linux and programming. Most
recently, he edited Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power
of Disruptive Technologies.