Free As In Water

So, the open source community/mentality/legacy/mindset tends to be attached to the idea:

“Free as in beer” — for comparison’s sake, another meaning could be, “free as in speech”.

Wikipedia has a good explanation of this, making “free as in beer” equivalent to “gratis,” meaning “free of cost.” Whereas “free as in speech” is equivalent to “libre,” free of restrictons.

Now, I understand why some things cost no money but are restricted. I also understand why some things cost no money and are not restricted. I do not have a particular religion either way, I think each product’s business model can be different.

So I’ll present a third concept: “Free as in water.”

Water is a privilege. In many places, we turn a handle and clear, potable, disease-free water comes out. We can drink it, we can wash ourselves with it, and we can luxuriate in it, as in a bath. However, many people in those places take it for granted that clean, potable, disease-free water will always come out when that handle is turned. Water is a precious commodity, though very often not treated as such. Many of us in the first world have not experienced how precious water is, as have those in the third world (“developing world” is the politically correct term these days).

I was reading randomly the other day, and came across a blog post where someone asked, “should water be free in a restaurant?”

There were a few repeated responses:

1) No, water should not be free in a restaurant. The water does actually cost money, and owners of properties typically pay a water bill.
2) No, water should not be free in a restaurant. While the water may be “free”, the glass is not, and neither is the waitstaff who bring you the glass and refill the water.
3) Yes, water should be free in a restaurant. The amount of water used does not cost that much, and the waitstaff is there anyway, so do not cost more.
4) Yes, water should be free in a restaurant. It puts me off when water is not, and I do not go back to those restaurants.

As I was reading, I immediately thought of open source business models. Because open source is, at its core, “free as in water”. The product is the water — whether it’s server-side software like Apache or MySQL, desktop software (aka “freeware”), an operating system such as Linux, or programming software such as PHP, Ruby or Perl. Much like water in a restaurant, as compared to other drinks, the cost is negligible. For instance, the cost of water compared to the cost of a soft drink is much less in most places.

Similarly, the monetary cost of MySQL compared to Oracle, or the cost of Linux compared to Microsoft, is much less.

Should all software be free? Certainly, I don’t think everything on a drink menu should be free. Oracle and Microsoft have a lot of overhead, and at the end of the day families need to be fed. Much like in a restaurant, though, open source software is the result of one or more folks doing work. Some of that work is programmatic, and yes, like water to soda, the programmatic cost is often less than the programmatic cost of the commercial entities. However, the waitstaff is analogous to support. Why is it that nobody thinks “free refills on drinks” is a ploy to get a bigger tip for waitstaff, yet many people think offering a free product with for-pay support means that the product is shoddy and of course you will need support?

That clean glass your water comes in is equivalent to QA. And yes, it’s not perfect — occasionally we find a spot of lipstick on the glass from a previous customer, and send the glass back.

So I believe the open source legacy should be that it is “free as in water” — it should be ubiquitous, though we should treasure it because it is truly valuable and if it did become rare, we would lose a lot of quality of life.

Nobody thinks “If you give away free water, nobody will ever buy a drink!” Yes, free water is a bit disruptive, but there will always be folks that use SQL Server, with it’s fabulous data analytics, and Oracle, with its long history and name recognition — just as there will always be folks willing to pay US $10 for an alcoholic drink. It’s not that someone paying $10 for a drink, or $5 for a beer, or even $2 for a soda is dumb because they could have just had water for free. It’s that sometimes you need water, and other times you want a $10 drink.

Now, MySQL has the potential to turn water into wine, and in that case, it’s even more disruptive…….

So, thoughts on the “free as in water” concept?

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