Browsers 2: Free at what Price

In the discussion on new desktop search software from Google and others one commentator notes that the early desktop search engines lacked a key trait ” few of them are free for the end users” . I am not so sanguine about free software always being a good thing. Just look what it has got users in the browser market.

Microsoft used a free browser and a free web server to bankrupt Netscape – the leading innovator in the browser market. Then once Netscape was done in Microsoft promptly stopped all innovations on IE. I am not certain which Microsoft fears more -a) Open Source software because it displaces Microsoft from being the lowest cost producer or b) the open, standards-based browser interface because it allows users and organizations to switch off the desktop when the goings get too expensive, unreliable, insecure or otherwise non-performant. Regardless, free software can be mixed bag for three reasons.

First, free software gets mixed support. From proprietary vendors, free software is low man on the totem pole for online technical support, security and bug fixes – the paying freight gets first attention. Just look at what has happened with IE. True Open Source vendors have large incentives to fix and improve their software because support and services is often their sole source of revenues. But, that only underlines the point – support is mixed for free software. Only Opera which charges for its software and Mozilla which it member developers rely on Mozilla reputation support and downstream expetise as s ource for real incomes – only these browser vendors have shown an active support effort beyond the bare minimum – security updates.

Second, free software can stifle innovations. Again just look at the browser marketplace. With browsers for free and Redmond having a 95% market share, innovations in a field that should be bursting with new stuff has had to go underground. But dont be duped, there is innovation to be had. Macromedia has been quietly developing the media compressive power and on-board smarts of its primarily web-based Flash SWF files. Adobe also has built up the security , print polish with fidelity plus now forms carrying capabilities of its web based PDF file format. And Google has broken through a beachhead on the Web protective sandlot model with its Google Desktop search engine – and given the high P/E ratios Google needs to maintain on the stock market, there is surely a wave of new browser+desktop services to be provided by Google. But the problem in a fast evolving market such as browsers and the Web, providing for free may remove a) the incentive for new innovations; b)the chance to earn payback and support for extending an existing product; and c)prematurely cut-off alternative approaches and options.

Third, free software may be used for market mischief and to thwart competition. Microsoft obviously did so “in cutting off the oxygen” to Netscape. Redmond may be repeating the practice in giving away for free huge chunks of BI software which it knows its esrtwhile BI partners cannot match – they, unlike Microsoft, do not have complimentary sales in OS server and database markets to offset the BI freebies.

So when this party hears “free” especially in a fast moving, complex market – alarm bells go off. I much prefer the Actuate BIRT and BEA Beehive models for free. Both of these are app dev tools for reportwriting and Web Services development respectively. Both are Open Source – so you can get the code for free or get the executable (or in the near future in the case of BIRT) , run it and get useful work done. But both vendors have held back rapidly changing code components which will remain proprietary and will be charged for. But as well both vendors have open API s for extending their Open Source projects which allows dual licensing. So 3rd parties who want to extend the BIRT or Beehive systems can choose proprietary or Open Source depending on their own circumstances, development model and needs to recoup time and investments. This type of “free” appears to me to offer more true freedom as more substantial options and unencumbered choices are available to developers and users alike.

Given the outcome of the “perpetually free” browser, one would think that users and organizations would know at what a price “free” software can come at.


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