When Linux Jumps the "Fiscal Sense" Boundaries

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 24, 2009

ZDNet's Chris Dawson has been thinking about Linux in the educational setting quite a bit lately, thanks to his school district's purchase of some new Intel Classmates, and the educational and financial benefits they bring.

Fueled by a piece he read in a recent openSUSE Education newsletter, he began pondering the ins and outs of open source software software adoption. Though he mentions Linux specifically, his thoughts transfer quite well to free software on closed platforms. Dawson asks if Linux is only for the poor -- if the economy wasn't in such a rough spot, would school districts (or businesses, or individuals) be moving to, or even seriously considering, open source platforms and alternatives?

It's a great question, and it's hard one for me to answer honestly. I know how I'd love to answer, and I know perfectly well that answer is unrealistic. Even if increased open source adoption in certain fields is primarily due to the dismal economy, it doesn't mean better financial times will lead to mass open source abandonment.

I've been there before. Sometimes, even when you know open source software makes sense (financially and functionally), it's exceedingly difficult to get your organization to make that change. The financial benefits tend to pique the interest of colleagues and higher-ups, but even in dire situations, there is some foot dragging. Sometimes the savings aren't seen at the beginning, and transitioning to new systems (proprietary or open) is never without hiccups. Paying more for a new system, oddly enough, often keeps complaints about these inevitable hiccups a bit more hushed.

The financial situation is without a doubt pushing more to open source software. The areas that tend to be pinched first, and hardest, in these instances are the educational, cultural, and community service fields. This means that more schools, libraries, and youth and outreach organizations are adopting open source. While the fact that these services are so signficantly affected is unfortunate, the push to adopt open source software is encouraging for all parties involved.

There are the obvious benefits for these organizations -- the ability to squeeze more life out of old hardware, an at least partial escape from the cycle of planned obsolescence, and the availability of countless useful applications, free of charge. Concerns about licensing ("We have ten licenses for this application, but it looks as if it's been magically installed, without the IT department's blessing, on seventeen machines") and disappearing vendors cease. The staff, and the people they serve, realize, suddenly, these computers are offering a lot more than they were previously.

The bad economy might be pushing organizations to use open source as much as it is pushing people to use their services. People are going to ask what they (or their children) are using, with the intent of trying it at home (now, or when they are able). In a strong economy, open source software will remain a good value. There are costs involved, but there's also a positive return on investment. It doesn't take a financial expert to see this, any more than it takes psychic powers to predict that the economy will eventually improve.

The organizations deploying open source software -- and the public they serve -- see its worth now. And while financial markets change, genuine value does not.