Dear Mr. Obama - Small and Medium Business


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Dec 08, 2008 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Dear President-elect Obama,

As part of your campaign, you were an advocate for small and medium business (SMB). I agree with this philosophy, since such a large number of people in the United States are employed by SMBs, and since such a large portion of our economy is based on SMBs.

In the computer industry there is something known as Free Software, which is software that guarantees the availability of the source code for the software solution to the end user. This allows the end user to make a business decision about whether they wish to use the software the way it exists, or take steps to change the software to have it meet the end-user needs.

Sometimes these changes are simple fixes to issues in the software that the creator of the software has not had the time or inclination to fix. Sometimes these changes are extensions to the software that would allow the end user to use the software in ways that would be impossible without the extension. In every case, the end user could make a decision based on their economics and business, rather than be restricted by the capabilities or economics of the software provider.

People will state that you cannot make money with Free Software. This is simply not true. Although some of this software is written by people in the course of doing their jobs or hobbies (systems engineers, musicians, weather analysts, etc.) and then contributed to the software community, much of this software is written for a fee, as a service of integration, consulting, and maintenance, rather than as a product. Computer system companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard, and Sun Microsystems have seen that freeing up their software allows more people to buy their hardware and services than closed-source, proprietary software can allow. Software-only companies such as Red Hat and Novell prove that Free Software techniques can employ people and make money. Companies such as Digium, which work with a free software package known as Asterisk, is relatively young yet employs hundreds of people directly and thousands more around the world installing and tailoring their Free Software for customers.

I believe that closed-source software is impeding our movement forward. In the early days of closed source it did reduce the expense of hand-crafted unique solutions, and replaced that with the commodity software of the PC revolution. However, like a lot of revolutions, the PC revolution outlived its usefulness, and now the companies that produce behemoth amounts of this closed source code struggle to meet the needs of marketplaces consisting of billions of users. The closed-source, proprietary model does not scale.

The problem is that with a given number of engineers for a small number of end users, you can create a product that meets 80-90 percent of the needs of 80-90 percent of these end users. This means that you have a functionality gap of between 19 percent and 26 percent what people need. For a small business this is somewhat manageable, but for a larger company (or government) this becomes a gap representing billions of lost productivity dollars, which is unconscionable. In addition, as the company's customer base increases, and the base's range of product needs expands to include people of many languages, cultures, and diverse needs, the closed-source, proprietary model breaks down completely, and the functionality gap becomes a huge, world-wide expense.

By using Free Software, small consulting and integration companies can spring up, working directly with the end customer tailoring the software to meet their needs. These small consulting companies can employ many highly paid specialists, with a much lower overhead and quicker ability to adapt to the needs of the individual customer than the larger manufacturer of software. These small companies would fit right into your plan of generating jobs for the middle class and channeling the money spent to working people. Your tax breaks for small business would encourage these companies to expand and improve, rather than lay off people.

You used the Internet wisely during your campaign. I know that you used Free Software in setting up your websites, sending your email, showing your videos, and in other ways. You have experienced the quality of the software, the ability of the software to change to meet your needs, and the value of having control over the software and the way it works.

I ask that the government put stipulations on software research financed by public funds (or even largely financed by government funds) that the results be patent free, published, and Free Software. The public has paid for the research once with their tax dollars. Why should they have to pay for it again?

Software research done for the military should be Free Software whenever it is not an issue of national security.

Universities that receive federal grants and funds should not be teaching "software products" in their courses. They should be teaching software principles. I believe these software principles are best taught through the use of Free Software.

I ask that the government consider using Free Software in new projects, new offices, and military uses. The question asked by the purchaser of software for the public good should not be "should we use Free Software", but "why can't we use Free Software?" As you know, when the government uses a specific set of software for their own use, the suppliers to the government often use the same software. For the government to embrace the concept of Free Software would mean that thousands of SMB companies could spring up delivering and tailoring this software to the needs of U.S. businesses.

There are other reasons for using Free Software, and examples of how Free Software allowed innovation when closed-source, proprietary software would not.

I would be happy to meet with your new Chief Technology Officer or any of his staff to discuss this further.


Jon "maddog" Hall, Executive Director
Linux International


  • Wrong "Free"


    Whether intentionally or not, you made the mistake of using the term "Free" in the wrong way when it comes to "Free Software". Just because Visual Studio Express is currently without cost, it is not "Free Software" in the way that I have described it.

    From what I can see there is no availability of the source code to change the way it works. No ability for the end user to maintain the functionality if Microsoft changes the licensing or (worse yet) decides to drop the program. No ability to extend the software. In fact, the "express" and "optional" parts indicate the normal "razor and blade" concept of a lot of marketing campaigns.

    "Microsoft Visual Express" is not Free, just gratis. And as a program for teaching computer science, this express is way off the tracks.



  • I agree.

    Visual studio express is free software. I truely believe we all should start using this in all classrooms that teach computing.

  • Support

    You forgot to mention support.

    Support for closed-source products ends with the owner.

    FOSS products can be supported by anyone. Simple example: I can install RHEL and buy support from Red Hat at several thousand $ per seat, or I can use CentOS -- the same product aside from the non-free software update channels -- and have my support in house, or bought from another company.

    It gets better: I could install the non-free components of RHEL over my CentOS installs and start buying support from Red Hat.

    The reverse is also true. I can start with RHEL, and at a later date, pull out the non-free components, and treat it like CentOS.

    There is nothing like this in the proprietary software world.
  • truth is good

    Good article /letter. I have read that the President Elect. was being troubled by security about keeping and using his blackberry. I sent a suggestion to his transition team to get a net book and use open source software to encrypt the hard drive. This show that open source could solve his problem. I hope that it got pass his screener.
  • Preach the gospel

    well written; reaches the masses
  • Motivate while showing users the power FOSS gives them

    I want to clarify a little about the "spins" (distro remixes) mentioned in the earlier post.

    One important reason I suggested distro-making was because it is a category of projects that would serve to motivate users onto Linux and beyond. Distro-making can be relatively easy to do at many levels, teaches you about the many Linux product components, allows for very advanced development as you gain experience (it grows with you), and yields a final product that many with or without a high level of technical savvy would find very gratifying and empowering. And it can be a very fun process.

    Additionally, distro-making can also serve as the foundation for many types of businesses or other products (something the Microsoft ecosystem players would find refreshing and extra potent). And in many cases, most such spins would differ relatively mildly from a more established distro.

    [Personally, I think distros should be special cases of a more general framework. There are some very interesting things that can be done. Distro recipe instruction chunks need to be something that are shoveled around among users and integrate-able into their personalized systems.]

    Creation is addictive, empowering, and a useful learning tool.. just ask virtually any FOSS developer .. just ask the many folks creating their own online spaces. [share-ability is another very important attribute]

    Final thoughts...

    -- If FOSS has grown this much with minimal input from most users or from many proprietary technology developers, just imagine what waits over the horizon. Re-using the software wheel is truly leagues more efficient than the alternative.
    -- And unlike scientific contributions, software contributions are bits and pieces that *any and all* can directly leverage immediately. The "laboratory" and the "manufacturing plant" are included in every "published journal article/paper".
  • Tremendous opportunities at many levels

    Wonderful letter.

    Not re-inventing the wheel aids productivity tremendously. The positive economic effects will come whether we are able to pinpoint them or not.

    The new government has an opportunity to help create standard "spins" of distros for its many uses.

    Campaign managers for all of these politicians should also *leverage AND reward* their supporter/constituent/user base with one or ten campaign-flavored distro(s).

    The government should also consider funding development to creating tools to make the creation of spins more user friendly. The result would be that citizens everywhere will be able to help themselves (hobbies, business, etc) while they learn about their hobbies, etc, and share with those of similar interests. The small business owner will be helped. The displaced worker will be helped. The inspiring artist will be helped. The teen with too much time on his hand will be helped.
  • Very VERY wisely put John

    I think _you_ maddog should be CTO for the USA, but maybe politics and being one, would mean having to shave your free flowing beard.

    In anycase, being a consultant, of even someone that interviews candidates for the CTO for the USA, could be something up your alley, so to speak.

    Now, just let me make it clear, that I think Free Software, and everything you had to say about it, it dead right, you sir, nailed it on the head. Free software benefits the entire chain (or ladder) of business, in that contributions are fed back to the end users, which in turn potentially innovate further from their. In other words, the FLEXIBILITY that free open software provides, is maluable and scaleable, that it litertally ALLOWES SMB's to employe untold millions or even billions of people.

    You sir, have nailed it by stating, that closed or proprietary software simply can not scale, to global demands. Not because, any existing businesses that do produce closed software (namely Microsoft) are no good, it simply means it is NOT possible, for a single corporate entity to pull it off.

    Free and Open Software does, and can scale, to adabt to any challenge, since it is open for anyone to help make it happen. Example: Wikipedia is bar-none the source for information, at a centralized location. Which, is of course, powered by free software running on Wikipedia's servers.

    I advise you, maddog, (and I have seen your wonderful, insightful speeches, to take this further, by writing to the President-Elect or even trying to met him in person. Using the email and forums is great, but man, we really need to see You, and Linus Torvalds and RMS up there, 'shaking hands' with our next president.

    I would love to see that photo one day. That would, without-a-doubt, put open source in a spotlight and even more so, legitimize it.

    Thank you for reading, and I wish you all the luck and care of your endeavours, John.
  • A simple example for Mr. President-Elect

    Good article and could be much more effective by citing one simple example of how much Open Source could save the tax payers. Actually, it is quiet a bit (millions) of money.

    Assume that the government has 1 million PCs each with Office ( I am sure the government has many more PCs). And assume that the discounted license for the FG is $50 for each copy. This will account for $50 millions saved if the government uses OpenOffice instead. From my experience, OpenOffice is as good as or better than Office.

  • Great letter!

    I enjoyed reading your letter! I worked in a Network Operations and Security Center for a DoD entity in a high profile operations center for a few years monitoring all sorts of networks. When the issue of IP monitoring came up (the software we were using was JNMS, it was VERY useless to us) and our government managers were looking at different things, I mentioned Nagios or Zabbix, they hated that idea. They didn't even want to consider it even though JNMS was fairly new and was expensive ($25K per end lic.) and they had just wasted tons of money. I hope Pres-elect Obama does something about this. DoD is full of NetOps centers that could save the government millions/year with Open Source monitoring systems.
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