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In the Cloud Era, Do We Have Free Speech or Free Beer?

FOSS and the Web Made Things "Free." Correct?

The history of free online stuff started with the advent of the Worldwide Web.

Prior to that, in the medieval Internet days, we had to pay. We paid for monthly services such as CompuServe, The Source, and AOL.

We hated that.

We also paid, and paid, for Microsoft products. The price of DOS, and then Windows, was included in the price of every new computer we bought.

We hated that, too. Many switched to Apple; even though Steve was a bigger control freak than Bill and Steve were, his stuff was original, cool, and not Microsoft.

Let Freedom Ring!
Then FOSS happened. Free and open software at last! And no matter how many times the free and open-source software folks repeat, "free as in free speech, not free beer," we were too intoxicated by the concept to listen.

The creation of Linux by Linus Torvalds (and coincident completion of a FOSS OS with the Linux Kernel) created a legitimate alternative to Microsoft's OS and application hegemony.

Along the way, the Web happened, too. An unholy alliance of free-speech advocates, venture-capital pinheads, and pro-business politicians ensured that much of the Web would be "free" and that all of it would be untaxed.

Meanwhile, the old-school concept of the "killer app" emerged in the form of search-and-retrieval (a concept dating to the CD-ROM days of the late 80s, later shortened simply to "search").

Yahoo and a few others, then Google became the information liberators. Suddenly, we could read newspapers and magazines from all over the world, most of them at no charge.

We could also buy books, lots of books, and not pay that killer 8.25% in California (or any other tax).  We could buy kitty litter and dog food, even if it didn't arrive until the cat had crapped all over the house and the dog had starved to death (somebody please send me the source of that immortal quote).

And we could watch young marketing grads drive empty Webvan trucks through our neighborhood.

Whoops, Did I Say That?
Quibbles aside, the freedom of the Web promised to undo Microsoft. It promised to do the job that US District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson utterly failed to do when he fumbled the ball at the goal line.

Noting in his decision in the U.S. vs. Microsoft that Microsoft "will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm" that dares compete with it, Judge Jackson was then overcome by hubris in characterizing Microsoft as gangsters and comparing Bill Gates to Napoleon.

Really. Bill Gates as Napoleon? Mon dieu! For starters, I've met Bill and he's not short. And I don't think he's ever invaded Russia.

So Microsoft got a pass, but started to face serious competition from all the free stuff. Even its free stuff (eg, Internet Explorer) faced free competition.

Because "free beer" part of FOSS will simply not die. I've heard this touted as its singular advantage more times than I want to remember, especially by government officials. These days, Chinese government officials are touting it, a toxic brew from a culture that respects no copyright and thinks copyleft means "no charge."

Here's the Problem
I've not once heard a government official talk about the ability to fork open-source software, to customize it. Never heard them tout entire communities working collectively to improve it. Never heard about how they intend to pay to support it.

No, the mindset is "this is not Microsoft, it's not Oracle, and it's FREE, baby!" Where are the ibuprofen?

Now we're in the Cloud Computing era, and this free bit has done got out of hand.

Does it make sense to expect top-notch newspaper coverage from sites that cost nothing to access? More important, does it make sense to trade in our privacy (ie, our freedom) so that we can continue to google everything for free, post our pictures for free, and chat, chat, chat for free? 

For businesses, does it make sense to eliminate the "Microsoft tax" forever by embracing, say, Google apps and Google Chrome OS? Or for the old-wine-new-bottle Oracle Cloud Office?

We know it doesn't seem to make sense to Google to provide all this "free" stuff without collecting copious information about you and where you want to go every day on the Web. We know it doesn't make any sense to Facebook.

Will it also make sense for Oracle to offer "free" apps without also wanting to learn a lot about who you are and what you do? And Microsoft?

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.