July 2006

Fossfp, Pakistan

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This article shares perspectives from the 'Spirit of FOSS', an understanding that the FOSS movement members share globally

There has been significant discussions and research on issues regarding how software developers collaborate and contribute under the Free and Open Source Software Model. This article shares perspectives from the 'Spirit of FOSS', an understanding that the FOSS movement members share globally.

At one point in time, software developers were just considered to be geeky computer scientists, hiding behind machines developing tonnes of codes to create robots and programmes that helped to revolutionise the business and industry. Because of all the programming, computers, robotics and technology related activities, the world hardly looked upon them as normal human beings sometimes considered them to be some sort of misfits for society or rebellions. Today, their role has evolved into something far much bigger and stronger; their contributions have shifted from scientific research, benefiting business and industry only towards developing freely accessible, modifiable, researchable, distributable contributions for humanitarian benefit. This has led towards formulation of the FOSS movement, not governed or owned by a single body, but by various FOSS communities, worldwide residing in civil society organs, academia and research, public and private sectors of society.

What brings and binds the FOSS community together?
The FOSS community formulates together around the concept of community contributions. Most FOSS developers get together because they believe in making the world a better place, treating each other with respect and that everyone in the community has something to contribute. These principles evolve into the basis of a commons, a community of sharing, where everyone equally shares resources and contributes more resources back to help retain the common grazing grounds continuing to make them sustainable and useful for future generations.

While contributing to a FOSS community, it is not necessary that all members should be writing pseudocode or programming software code, using the various available open source software development languages and platforms. Instead they can also contribute in terms of using the software for their own and their community's benefit, inform problems that occur while its usage, carry out docum-entation, promotion of the software online as well as offline, conduct trainings including seminars and conferences for wide-spread adoption by end-users, distribute the software freely or even charge fees for services built around using the software. The opportunities available for contributing in one form or the other are immense and the scale at which these activities may rise to is sometimes unimaginable.

An effective example is that of Linux that has evolved into a globally renowned Operating System in competition to other proprietary (closed source licensed programmes or where programmes are not available with their source code) platforms. A Linux distribution enshrined on the principle of the commons is Ubuntu-Linux, derived from the Debian Linux distribution. Ubuntu has grown into the most widely used desktop Linux globally. Moreover, it is available with various FOSS applications including tools like, Open Office, FireFox Internet browser, Evolution e-Mail Manager, GAIM Instant Manager etc. The current distribution widely supports servers as well as standalone server for managing LAMP (Linux-Apache-Mysql/PostgreSQL-Php/Perl) software development. Apart from Operating Systems and general applications, the FOSS movement has immensely contributed to human and social development through applications that support human rights, gender empowerment, microfinance development, employment creation, news sharing, information and knowledge dissemination etc.

At times, the FOSS development model including the economics of how the community sustains itself in light of monetary and binding capacities becomes quite confusing for people, who are interested in becoming involved with the movement or with its contributions. Usually the issues that come to mind are that a FOSS community of practice or learning may give away its contributions either at no-cost offer or at a minimal cost that includes that source code of the contributed application or system. The basis of confusion is that the world only perceived the source code part of the software to be the actual high-revenue generating commodity in the software development model itself. The source code normally would cost more than the license or the compiled programme distribution under proprietary software models and if the source code is being contributed to end-users either free or at more than the cost of the distribution of the software itself, how will the communities generate revenue directly from their products and contributions? This perception tends to be misperceived regarding how FOSS communities generate stable and scalable revenue streams in order to sustain their existence and growth.

Revenues tend to be an output of post-development activities, undertaken by the FOSS community either evolved due to demand from the end-users to extend customised services or as strategies to continue the sustainability and growth of the project. This can also be termed as value addition to services extended around the FOSS development model. Related models have been used by a large number of commercial organisations that have extended business activities developed around delivering FOSS related services throughout the world.

The FOSS model disrupts the traditional product retail oriented business model by extending the software product with its source code, sometimes free or for a nominal fees (without proprietary licensing) and further generating revenues through providing supplementary services including consultancy for system integration, documentation, end-user training or service and system maintenance contracts generating more value, not from the product, but around the product with continued generation of community support around the system with continuous updates and feature additions. The objective here is not to entail that FOSS provides a compelling business opportunity but the fact that FOSS through this model reduces the associated research and development costs as well as the time to bring more innovative products to the market and speeding up competition to a new level.

The FOSS model gives competitive advantage to its development community that itself is very much innovative and productive due to its globally disbursed nature. This community brings to the project cross-disciplinary research from all corners of the globe as well as continuous security enhancements that produce a product of superior quality and very secured. Further adding to the project are internationalisation and localisation capabilities and thus a product is developed that can be freely extended to end users all around the world.

The FOSS model develops a community around the project that continuously provides new solutions, features, and ideas. The FOSS community or the development team benefits from the output, highly skilled software developers from around the world, creating a knowledge product of unimaginable economic and social value without paying huge sums of salaries and production overheads while benefiting from supplementary services models, built around the project in terms of learning and monetary values.

FOSS model has the ability to multiply itself like a nuclear reaction. It spreads from one region to the other by word of mouth, project and community mailing lists and newsletters and other promotional activities until it hits mainstream media and is picked up by the commercial corporate media world and thus, becomes a hot usable and sellable product. The model has also proved to promote and market itself wildly like the examples of the Linux, Apache, the FireFox browser and many other successful FOSS projects. This, in return, generates excellent reputation that further gains larger portions of market share as compared to proprietary software.

Where it took proprietary models decades to market and gain global dominance, FOSS movement has quietly built up, spreading its wings to all corners of the globe, becoming a preference for all innovative and human development oriented projects whatever it may be, education, health or poverty alleviation. FOSS movement  is a whole new ecosystem that has emerged from 'open standards' and 'alternative software development techniques'.

Freedoms in FOSSFP
The intention here is not to explain the four freedoms of the Free Software Foundation and the principles of the Open Source Initiative. The focus, instead, is the underlying human motivation of developing social or community oriented software for human benefit at large.



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