Selling Freedom

I am volunteering with a nonprofit organization that is looking to upgrade their (antiquated) IT system. They have a hodge-podge of old PCs, with no real network. I'm sharing with them my expertise in the field, to ensure that they buy products and services that will meet their needs at reasonable cost. We've entertained two presentations so far, one from a Microsoft Certified Partner and one from a GNU/Linux consultant.

Hardware prices already have razor-thin margins, so the cost of the physical servers will be fairly similar. The cost of purchasing Free Software, though, is naught so the GNU/Linux sales price is almost exclusively for the gentleman's expertise. That makes for a striking difference on that all-important bottom line. Yes, of course, I recognize that the cost of licensing proprietary solutions includes in it the price of expertise for the people who made the product, but the people who made it are rarely the people selling it to you or supporting it for you.

The sales pitch was interesting. I didn't write down exactly what was said, so I emailed the consultant and asked for a review. Says he:

With an open source product, everyone, including my competition, has full access to the product. Therefore, the value added in a sales situation is my relationship to the customer, and my ability to satisfy their requirements using this common base of materials. If they are not satisfied with my work, they have the ability to
  1. do it themselves
  2. find another provider
There is no penalty, since that new provider has just as much access to the product as I had. Therefore, it is incumbent on myself to be sure that I am providing continuing value, and that the customers are actually satisfied.
Of course there really is a penalty, in terms of lost time, for switching to a different provider, but you'd have that if you switched proprietary vendors, too. The real point being made here is that Free Software doesn't lock you in in the same ways that proprietary software locks you in. If a proprietary product doesn't do what you need it to do, a different support provider probably won't be able to remedy that.
... all of the power is in the hands of the consumer, rather than in the hands of the vendor. The vendor is completely at the mercy of the consumer, and must continuously be striving to satisfy their customers, or they will lose business. Of course, if the vendor is very good at what they do, they will thrive, and the customers will pay a premium for that excellent service. If the vendor is not so good, the customers will either pay less, or find another vendor. This is the proper vendor-customer relationship, which has been bent completely backwards in the "commercial software model".

In the "commercial software model", customers have very little power, because their options are very limited.

Sam Ruby quotes Jason Hunter speaking about the same dynamic as it applies to project leaders. Just as Free Software consultants are held to account by their clients, so too are Free Software projects held to account by their users. If the consultant or project leader is failing to deliver, the customers and users can either look to someone else, or take a stab at doing it for themselves.

This is what people mean when they talk about Free Software: it's not the price, it's the liberty.


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