What FOSS means to us, and should to everyone

We wanted to take a little look at what FOSS means to most people, what it means to us at S4, and what we think that it should mean to everyone who uses it.  

First, it’s probably a good idea to start out with an actual definition:

FOSS – Free and Open Source Software. 

If you aren’t familiar with the terms like; free software, open source, open education, etc. or even if you think you are but don’t exactly know the difference between them, then you could do a lot worse than reading this: What is Free Software? – GNU Project – Free Software Foundation

The part of the definition that gets most commonly misunderstood here is that word ‘Free’. It was never really intended to refer to the price of the software, but instead to what you can do with it. It is free as in liberty, not free as in gratis.

Free Software means that anybody has the right and freedom not just to use it, but also to study the source code, change it, improve it, distribute it, and under most licenses even to sell it. 

Of course when the source code of the software is freely available to everyone, it means that the financial price is generally free as well. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t money to be made from open source software. Red Hat and Automattic (the company behind WordPress) show that there can be huge profits to be made by offering paid support and services even while nobody is actually paying for the core software. 

What FOSS seems to mean to most people

To the vast majority of people it seems as if FOSS means:

“Something I can take and use without paying for it, and where I can happily demand constant support for any issue including ones that I could easily find the answer to by searching or that I would never actually ask for support for if I was using a piece of commercial software, and that I never have to give anything back to or say thank you for in any way”

Actually, legally and technically, the above is completely valid and correct. But the whole herd of users following along with it comes with some big problems, and it definitely isn’t in the real spirit of FOSS.

What FOSS means to us at S4
(and what we think it should mean to everyone)

At S4 we believe in accountability, transparency, and we are truly passionate about open source software. We also believe in a lot of other things, but those are the most relevant to the topic.

We are a company that provides online services. Everything that we do, from what we are selling to the way that we manage and communicate, involves software, and all of that software has to come from somewhere. 

That presents us with a few possible choices. Of course we can buy or lease commercially licensed software. We can use FOSS, or we could also jump right in and write our own. Actually, thosse second and third of those options are actually much more connected than you might think.

We are a small team with a limited amount of resources and time. We simply don’t have the ability to write every piece of software that we need from the ground up, but we do still want things that work to fit our own specific needs. Using FOSS gives us the ability to achieve that, we can take an existing open source project, make the cosmetic and functional changes that we need and deploy it.

Of course, if our changes are useful to a wider community then we can also contribute them back to the core for other people to make use of. That is the very essence of open source: collaboration and community involvement

So, our policy is to use open source software wherever we can and support those projects with time, money, whatever instead of spending it on commercial software. 

We aren’t talking about huge amounts of money, our software spend per month is the same as or slightly lower than it would be using equivalent commercially licensed products, but we are supporting projects that we believe in and that we have the ability to actually influence and be a part of. 

The problem is that there are far more of those ‘take, take’ people than there are who actually give something back to FOSS projects, and for that reason a lot of really interesting and exciting projects just disappear. Nobody wants to donate all of their time and work, and get back nothing except for issues and demands for support. 

The simple reality is that FOSS projects only work if people actually contribute. That could be time, effort, and skills, or it could be financially. Everyone has the ability to give something back , it leads to you and everyone else having better and faster developed software to use, yet it seems that so few do. 

Do you have to contribute? No, of course you don’t, that is one of those wonderful freedoms that FOSS affords you.

But, using FOSS in place of commercial options and not giving anything back at all, if and when you can, just seems a bit rude really!

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