Yes, the best things in life are free. But how about the best software? Well billg @microsoft.com and the US Justice Department certainly have radically different interpretations of the antitrust implications of "free" software. Not to worry, though. This isn't another Microsoft vs Justice column. On the contrary, this is about the very antithesis of Microsoft and antitrust. It's about innovative communities and innovative companies. It's about marketplaces that don't behave like ordinary markets.
As a Eudora and (sometime) Netscape user, I find the entire freeware/shareware phenomenon fascinating and curiously compelling. The cultures - should I say cults? - of Linux, Apache and the Web, command respect even as they inspire commercial scepticism. Are they bizarre little technotribes like the Tasaday and the Kung that are ultimately destined for assimilation and/or extinction?
Or do they truly represent a different way to create and nurture sustainable innovations that can shape and reshape global markets? In other words, are they mere epiphenomena? Or are they really changing the rules?
I think the philosophies, ideologies, technologies, cultures and the economies of freeware/ shareware will rewrite the business models of entrepreneur-ship and the IT investments of global corporations in the next five years.
To be sure, you don't find Fortune 1000 CIOs championing freeware/shareware as part of the enterprise-wide solutions or as vehicles for cost management or superior maintenance. You don't find consultancies such as Andersen or EDS supporting the diffusion of freeware/shareware into their client infostructures.
Most important, you don't see many entrepreneurs making Larry Ellison kind of cash off freeware/shareware innovation (Netscape notwithstanding).
So what's the real story?
There are several stories here. The freeware/shareware model has in fact already infected the commercial world, and its impact may prove even more virulent as 2000 approaches. In the same way that large companies have banded together to pressure HMOs to revise their rules and procedures, it isn't so bizarre to imagine that large organisations tired of being held hostage by not-so-open technologies and constrictive licences might unite to pool resources to manage the next generation of objects.
MIT's Web consortium has done an interesting job balancing proprietary innovation and community standards. Why wouldn't we see those kinds of pressures seep into the enterprise resource planning domain?
Given that the most significant costs associated with enterprise-wide software aren't development, but deployment and maintenance, it makes sense to bring to the enterprise the freeware/shareware community's support sensibility. Let's be blunt: isn't that what beta sites do for commercial vendors anyway?
Consider this hypothetical: Microsoft, weary of its antitrust travails, declares that Windows and NT are now "freeware/shareware".
All the application programming interfaces are published. The Redmond gang won't make the bulk of its money selling software; it will make its margins selling customer support and maintenance contracts.
Microsoft gets to control the brand, and everyone else gets to muck around with the code. What happens to the law and the market if billg declares his company's software as freeware/shareware?
Whoops! I guess I lied.
This turned out to be a Microsoft antitrust column after all.