Free as in not being ripped-off


free as in not being ripped off

The theme of the week for me has been "free software".

It started from a strange source - reading about the judgement in the BSkyB versus EDS law case. Briefly, BSkyB hired EDS in 2000 to build a customer relationship management (CRM) system for two call centres in Scotland. The project was worth £48m, and EDS gave assurances that the system could go live within nine months and be completed within 18 months. However, by 2002 BSkyB had taken the development back in-house (it then spent  £265m on the project) and in 2004 sued for damages. It took years but they won - EDS are guilty of "fraudulent misrepresentation giving rise to damages" estimated at £200m. As you'd expect there were arguments from both sides. EDS argued that BSkyB had been vague about what it wanted. Legal commentators seem to agree that it finally came down to the (lack of) credibility of the EDS principal witness, and that's why they lost their case.

But what seems not to bother anyone is the overall cost of the project. I'm guessing there was more to this CRM than the average project, and I used to work on call distributions systems in my Telecoms days so I know what these can cost, but a budget of £48 million pounds? And then the cost of £265 million to do it in-house? Amazingly high.

Sometimes when you see coverage of open source technology by certain websites or in analyst reports there's a nudge-nudge factor this isn't really proper grown-up technology. Free software - you get what you pay for - is their implication.

But if this is a glimpse into the world of proprietary Enterprise software I think we need to hope that things have changed since 2002.

It puts the arguments between definitions of freeware, free software and open-source software into perspective. The arguments between advocates of "free beer" and "free as in freedom" can be fascinating, but pragmatism says free/open-source software is really more about not being ripped off. Not being ripped off by the project costs; by the false promises of a vendor's sales team; by the inflexible terms of a license agreement; and by the inability not to to be able to change the software if you want.

There's a common thread between community projects, companies who offer free or freemium product, commercial open-source vendors and free software projects. It is transparency, good value-for-money and respect for the long-term relationship with a customer.

The government is known for the same car-crash examples of ICT projects as the above. The UK government came out this week waving a large open-source banner, but achievements included the example that "over 25% of secondary schools use the Linux operating system on at least one computer".  Not good enough.

Tags: Open Source Software