Free beer, free speech, etc.

Lou Grinzo lgrinzo at
Thu Jan 18 19:36:36 UTC 2001

There's another option in this running beer/speech/software thread that I
haven't seen anyone else bring up, so I will.

Not all that long ago IBM licensed one of its mainframe OS's, VM, according
to the usual system for such things--a monthly fee based on some metric (CPU
size?).  The interesting detail is that customers got the binary and the
full source code to the OS, and they routinely wrote (still write?) their
own modifications and patches for the system.  They even traded the changes
among themselves, even though they weren't allowed to give away copies of
the base OS.  This was all with IBM's complete knowledge--I worked in one of
the VM development labs at the time, and we would see many customers trading
contact information at conferences so they could then send each other source
code patches.  A few customers had so heavily modified the OS that it was
barely recognizable, and they had zero chance of upgrading from what was
theoretically a several-years-old version to a current one, thanks to the
massive incompatibilities and differences it would trigger.

It seems to me that such a system has many, but not all, of the benefits of
open source--lots of eyeballs chasing bugs and making fixes, lots of
experimentation looking for better solutions, open API's, etc.  Customers
routinely offered to give their changes to IBM in the hopes we'd use them in
the system (although they weren't obligated to make the offer, and we
weren't obligated to accept).  They didn't want anything for it, they just
wanted to help improve the product.

The company was still able to make a profit, since they were never competing
with the infamous $0 version of their own product.

This approach slowed down the evolution of the software quite a bit,
compared to pure open source, but it did let customers help out each other.

This kind of arrangement would not be an OSI-style Open Source License, but
it still might have some merit in some cases, as a half-way point between
full-open and full-closed source.  And no, I have no idea what you'd even
call something like this.  (Although "Sun Community License" leaps to
mind... <g>)

Take care,
Lou Grinzo

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