Opinion: Web-based software: Trap or treasure?

How 'free' are Web apps, really?

Richard Stallman thinks that free software is a good thing. But when it comes to free Web-based software, it's a different story. He thinks it's a trap, and "worse than stupidity."

It helps to know that Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), an organization that promotes free software. He defines free software as: "Software that gives you the user the freedom to share, study and modify it. We call this free software because the user is free." Free software of this type underpins the Web, in tools such as the Apache Web server, which as of June 2008 served 49.12% of all Web sites.

Web-based software is an element of cloud computing, which includes software as a service, Web 2.0 applications and what used to be referred to as application service provider, or ASP, software. Salesforce.com is a well-known example in enterprise computing. Economies of scale have driven down the cost of these technologies to the point that larger Web companies can offer them to others at almost negligible prices. This has allowed small companies to innovate quickly without the worry of dealing with infrastructure concerns, and has driven down the cost of implementing software for others.

Web-based software may be free or nearly free to the user in terms of cost, but in other aspects, it is certainly not free by the FSF's definition. The user essentially agrees to give up his data and, perhaps, even the control of it to someone else.

This has definitely opened the door to both privacy and data ownership issues. Facebook, for example, has been a lightning rod for these concerns. At the same time, other Web 2.0 applications provide APIs to allow users to access their data. Web-based e-mail software offers standards-based access via protocols such as POP3 or IMAP.

Actually, we have already grown quite comfortable with sharing our data across local-area networks. Cloud computing is simply an extension of the same idea. There are inherent risks that we will lose control of our data, but no company would last long providing such services if they adopted that way of operating. Word of mouth on the Internet alone would scare potential users away from such an environment.

And even though Mr. Stallman is concerned about it, we actually use proprietary programs every day. Few people use open operating systems; we depend instead on Windows and Mac OS X. Or we purchase proprietary versions of free software such as Red Hat Linux, because we feel more comfortable having available customer support.

Web-based tools, proprietary or open, are merely an extension of that mentality. And so far, they have proved to be excellent in terms of available features and low cost. Currently, there seems to be no obvious deviation from that path. I'm comfortable keeping my sales information in Salesforce.com, my documents at Google Docs, my photos at Flickr, my blogs at WordPress and my thoughts at Twitter. I have the added benefit of sharing with the world, something that would never happen if I kept everything on my local desktop. And that sharing makes my content all the more valuable.

Mr. Stallman's concerns seem well intentioned, but currently without basis. Web software companies seem to realize that the path to growth comes from pleasing customers, which they have achieved by providing a core set of necessary features at low or no cost, and by remaining open. So far that seems to have worked very well for both the providers and everyone else.

Larry Borsato has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable yet often entertaining thoughts, you can read his blog at larryborsato.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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