Where would you be if Free Software went away tomorrow? Personally, I'd be sunk — my daily toolkit includes bash, vim, ssh, Mozilla, AbiWord, OpenOffice.org, and Perl. That doesn't mention the countless underlying tools and libraries that come into play. Without Perl, this publishing system would be gone. Without bind or sendmail or Apache, the Internet would barely exist. Without Linux or BSD (and I apologize for apparently conflating the BSDs with “Free Software”, but I'm on a rhetorical roll here, so please bear with me), we'd have no inexpensive community websites, no roll-your-own weblogs. Without MySQL and PostgreSQL and the other free databases, we'd have flat files and….
Without languages like Perl and PHP and Python and Ruby, I'd have very little to write about. Without gcc, even C and C++ would be tricky. Would anyone outside Sun still care about Java if it weren't for the Blackdown guys, or Jakarta, or all of the tools they produce?
Without all of this wonderful software, we'd plunge back into the Dark Ages. (It's tempting to say that the barbarians who sacked Rome represent proprietary software, but that leaves the unenviable metaphor of saying that unchecked expansion left the hackers soft around the edges, and no one wants that!)
Think of the effect on your business now. Maybe you only have one Linux box in the corner serving files, or maybe you've taken the plunge and have a beefy Linux Terminal Server in a closet and run everything on thin clients. Maybe you don't have any free or open source software anywhere — even if that's the case, you've likely benefitted from the cost pressures that high-quality redistributable software has applied to proprietary vendors. (If you'd previously used OpenView or CDE and now have an X desktop that doesn't hurt your eyes, you've benefitted doubly.) Where would your business be without this software?
Don't worry. It's not going away.
That's not to say things are peachy keen, though. I'm going to discuss the Perl community briefly, because that's the community I know best. These ideas apply much more broadly, though.
Things are tough. Lots of good, smart, hard-working people are unemployed or underemployed. (Writing a book is a big job — and several good people are working on books, but it can be tough to pay the bills while writing full-time.) That includes some of the tip-top names in the Perl world.
Face it — if money were no object, wouldn't you hire a Michael Schwern to write tests, a Damian Conway to give training, and a Larry Wall to do research?
If you or your company benefit from Free Software, here's a list of ways you can help ensure the future of Free Software. Focus less on the “free” part and more on the “enlightened self interest” part:
- Donate money to the project of your choice.
- Sponsor a hacker to add a feature or fix a bug.
- Hire a hacker to train your employees.
- Donate code.
- Report a bug.
- Answer a question on a mailing list.
- Encourage your employees to contribute to a project of their choice.
- Replace a proprietary tool with a free one.
- List the free software you use on your website.
- List the free software you use in a press release.
- Host a user group meeting.
- Donate 10% of the money you've saved by using free software to the projects that have saved you money.
- Write a thank you note to a project that's saved you time.
There are a lot of companies who've done one or all of these things, and there are a lot more ideas waiting to be discovered. (I'm pretty proud to say that my employer scores very well, and that I've done a fair few of these things myself.) To everyone who's done at least one of these ideas, congratulations. You've helped ensure that Free Software keeps going.
To everyone else, if you've benefitted from Free Software, what are you waiting for?
chromatic is the Technical Editor of the O'Reilly Network.
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