Year ending and all that. I’ve had this post swirling around in my head for almost a year now and have it started three times and I’ve decided that in my attempts to clean out at the end of the year, I would take a shot at writing this properly
There is a long standing expression in the open source software community that there is a difference between ‘free’ as in beer and ‘free’ as in speech. It took me a while to get my mind around this…
Free as in Beer
The first one ‘free as in beer’ refers to a beer that is given to you that you can have and drink without paying for it. There are some funny things that go along with ‘free as in beer’. Sometimes when someone gives you a free beer they really really just want to offer you a beer, and they’ll even let you choose which beer you want out of the ones they have available. In my house right now, any of you could have a Maudite, a Fin du Monde, a great Oatmeal Stout made by St-Ambroise or Ephemere which is an apple mush based beer. (I also think there is a Coors light in the fridge, which you are more than welcome to…) I will not expect you to give me one later, or to return it or anything else… I really would just give you a beer.
Now… this is often not true of free beer. People give people free beer in order to be able to talk to them (See impressment or any bar in your town). Some people give you a free beer in order to encourage you to drink more beer later, which you will have to pay for. Some people will give you a free beer to impress you, to encourage you, to reward you (this in lieu of, say, real money). Think of any pop-culture reference you can think of where people are giving other people free beer and you’ll probably come across someone trying to get something from someone else. So, free beer comes with a catch. Usually.
The other thing about ‘catch’ beer is that you lose the option of choice. If a company is offering free beer to encourage you to drink more of their beer, you’ll get ‘their’ free beer. So a Coors light from the Coors company. Blech. It is free… but is it really beer? There are other attachments to free beer, like who you can drink it with, or any other likely restriction that you can think of. It is not the beer of convenience the free beer… the giver gets to choose, and they will often choose that you are going to do things in such a way as to serve their initial intention in giving it to you.
A stranger gives you a free beer… you think… Why has this person given me a free beer?
Now, software works exactly the same way. There are some services that you can use that are actually just free, and we’ll get to those in a second, but first lets talk about the ‘catch beer’. There are some pieces of software that offer you free email, free social networking places or free versions of their software. In return, these folks are expecting you to read their advertisement, buy their products or, potentially, just recognize their brand. You will also not necessarily be allowed to do things the way you want. You may have to read a message in a certain way, or click through twenty pages to see twenty pictures… each picture giving you another chance to see the advertising. Like gmail, your usage of the software may be slowly gathering up information about the things you are interested in or talking about.
As we make choices to bring things like gmail, ning or facebook into our classrooms these are the quiet companions we are bringing along with us. By opening up an educational Ning account (now free of ads) we are both putting our content in a proprietary format that could go away if the company goes under or gets purchased, and we are accustoming our students to an environment so that the next time they choose a piece of software they are more likely to choose ning… and a Ning with ads. Is it a big deal? Maybe or maybe not. It certainly means that the kind of mashups you can make are affected by the company policies. Maybe they like flickr… maybe something else… but their corporate choices have a direct effect on our own choices in our educational environments. Again… is this a bad thing? Well… it depends on the choices that they make.
So, if we are thinking of going the ‘free as in beer’ route for education, then we need to do some research. We need to look into why the company is making the choices that they are making, and think and talk about what kind of an effect this is going to have in our classrooms. We need to do a detailed read of the terms of service to ensure that we have a VERY CLEAR idea of the copyright regulations that are going to affect the work our students are doing. If a given company offers us free beer software that doesn’t allow us to export the content, then we need to build that into our workflow and ensure that the content our students are producing will be available in some other context if the free beer service crashes for some reason, goes into receivership or changes its rules and regulations.
Examination of the quiet side of free as in beer software might reveal a tradeoff that’s perfectly rational. It may also reveal that you’d be turning over the copyright of the work of your students to a company that could be bought out by any other company.
Free as in Speech
Open Source Software advocates have long said that their software is ‘free as in speech.’ This does NOT necessarily mean that the software is ‘free as in beer’. Free as in Speech refers to your ability to do as you please with the software. You may install it on your own server, you may, in most cases, change it, adapt it, combine it with other kinds of software. (with some restrictions) When I think of free speech I always think of the folks in Hyde Park in London who climb a small ladder and preach about what they think others around them should be doing with their lives. Some of them don’t function in our society the same way as others, others just feel very passionate about their particular creed, religion or political view. It is one of the great virtues of our society that those folks are ‘allowed’ to get up and say whatever they d#$% well please. It does not, however, say very much about the ‘value’ of what they are saying. You can take bits and pieces of what they say and say them yourself. You can ignore the whole thing. You can yell back. These are choices that you can make.
The problem with the plethora of free speeches is that it makes it difficult, sometimes, to figure out which speech on a given topic is of value. None of us (at least no one I know) knows enough to be able to make intelligent choices about what to believe about everything, and the choices are endless. This is where we turn to our trusted networks, the people we know and trust and work through the ideas with them, borrow the work that they’ve done in something they understand very well, and allow it to guide us in our decision about what to believe. I might, if I were trying to make a decision about the war in Afghanistan (big issue in Canada) have a conversation with my cousin who is a soldier there, my other cousin who is a politician in the Government and some of my friends at the university who study foreign policy. I would combine that information into an informed opinion and use that opinion to guide my voting. This is the way of free speech in a free society, we find people to trust and then we use our own minds to make a decision.
Free as in Speech software is the same way. Anyone can release Open Source Software software. Some of it is very good and some of it is not so strong. Open Source Software is created by groups of people who work together to create something that serves their needs. They know that one person in their basement can’t possibly support the development of a piece of software so they give up the ‘ownership’ of the software for the help that they’ll get from people around the world. They release their software as ‘free as in speech’ and then a community supports it (or, in the case of failed projects, it doesn’t support it). A solid community is essential for any good OSS project. If you look at wordpress or drupal (my favourites) there are some serious considerations before going down that road. You need to talk to some people in your network and match other people’s experience against your own and make sure that that particular software isn’t just going to disappear sometime soon.
You need to do alot of work to get the technology set up and ensure that the choice that you are making is not going to fall apart on you in a couple of months. You need to have access to server (or someone else’s). You’ll need to install it (or get someone else to install it) and do the updates when they come along. On the other hand, everytime you use your software you’ll only have yourself to look to for ‘why’ the software is being used in a certain way. You don’t have to do that research into the corporate side of the company.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m hugely biased towards Open Source Software. What I’m trying to explain here is that it is, in the end, no more work to use open source software then it is to use ‘free as in beer’ software. The difference is that with Open source software you are learning skills (technological, networking) that have wide ranging applications to other things you may want to learn. It also means that if you wish to add some functionality to the software (as we are doing a UPEI) you can develop those things and contribute them, be part of the community that is working together to make the software better. Of course, it’ll take a while to get started, you’ll need to explore the community, develop trusted people to give you advice.
In the Free as In Beer scenario you need to spend your time analyzing and weighing the effects of the lack of control that you have over your learning community. Imagine holding your physical classes in a room that was owned by a major Cola company. One day they said “oh no, no big ads in the classroom” but they leave a cola machine in the hallway, or they leave the name of the company over the door. Well… you might suggest that that would be an acceptable trade off considering how amazing the classroom is…. You will also never know if that classroom will someday be taken away. Of course, you can start RIGHT AWAY.
Just a question of where you want to invest your time.