Former social worker and tech CEO finally gets it!

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As a former founder/CEO of a paranoid technology company developingproprietary enterprise software, one would think "free" software and Iwouldn't mix any better than wax and water. After fighting lawsuits torecover my "stolen" software, the idea of ownership is etched into mypsyche. Hence the paranoia in my company... NDAs, trade secrets andpatent interests. The business models around giving software away havemade me confused. Funny though what time spent curled up withfreesoftware magazine will do. I have recently become a strong convertand advocate for the free software movement.

I have now seen the light and call it Ubuntu and it fits quiteironically with my previous career. (Of course, I sold the company;but that's a different blog entry.)

Prior to developing technology I was a social worker developing socialprograms to help disadvantaged people. I strongly believed in thespirit of community and service to others; and therefore it was odd Ideveloped a proprietary technology for this community marketplace. Butthis started pre-2000 before the great cataclysm of the tech meltdownwhen software-for-free wasn't exactly a recognized concept in thefinancing circles. I was building software for non-profits on asoftware for service (ASP) model, which I thought was better than thetraditional COTS approach, affordable for the sector and far moreegalitarian... it never occurred to me to seek investors who would behappy if I gave the software away.

The non-profits I previously worked for purchased DOS and thenWindows. We also purchased office suites from Corel or Microsoft, andexpensive products like Accpac. How many non-profits still do this?Many, and with public charities in the US reporting nearly $1.1trillion in revenues and over $1.0 trillion in total expensesaccording to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, they areprobably spending a chunk of that on software. Maybe it would bebetter to spend it on direct services and reduce the dependence.

If you are a non-profit today, or just a human being, there is noreason to be buying most of the software you will need. In futureentries, I will explore free software for various aspects ofnon-profit services, including donation tracking, memberships, website development and maintenance, case management systems, clinicalassessments, and electronic health/medical records; but for thedesktop I want to talk about the most exciting thing to hit thecomputer since the Macintosh—Ubuntu. In fact, if Steve Jobs was asocial entrepreneur I'm sure he'd have invented Ubuntu!

Ubuntu is a GNU/Linux based operating system for the desktop. I recentlydropped Windows and installed Ubuntu on my laptop. That's right... amore than complete replacement operating system for the desktop forfree. I haven't looked back and every day I relish using the system.Ubuntu is sponsored by Canonical Ltd., a private company funded bySouth African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth who has a mission tobring this software not only to the regular and sophisticated computeruser throughout the world, but to those who are more disadvantaged aswell. Ubuntu means "humanity towards others" and this of course hitsthe nerve of my social work paradigm and has overridden my sense ofproprietorship.

The Ubuntu Philosophy promotes these core philosophical ideals whichI've pulled from their website:

  1. Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy,distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for anypurpose, without paying licensing fees.
  2. Every computer user should be able to use their software in thelanguage of their choice.
  3. Every computer user should be given every opportunity to usesoftware, even if they work under a disability.

The Ubuntu philosophy and the philosophy of the non-profit world match!

Non-profits should be embracing this technology and investigating freesoftware systems... many of which come with Ubuntu. I don't have roomto describe how Ubuntu works, I'll do that in my next entry. Freesoftware for non-profits... there is more than you can imagine andusing Ubuntu is "almost" as easy as Windows and in some respectseasier; more on that later. For now... install it.



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I read this article and I'm not totally sure if you mean free as in beer or free as in speech (or both). You make a couple of references to "non-profit" and "giving away" and "for free".

When we say free software, we do not mean we mean ``no charge software''; we mean software that will give us the liberty to:

  1. Use the software for any purpose
  2. To study how the software works and improve it
  3. Redistribute copies of the software
  4. Publish improvements of the software

Any software that does not give us all four of these freedoms are non-free software. When talking about free software, it is best to avoid using terms like ``give away'' or ``for free'', because those terms imply that the issue is about price, not freedom.

We need to be able to have all these freedoms so that software can be as good as possible. We need to have the freedom to change the way software works to improve the way it works for us. We also need the freedom to distribute our changes so that everybody can benefit from our work. We should have the freedom to distribute modified and unmodified software.

Having the freedom to redistribute software does not mean we have to ``give away'' copies of our work for no charge. Such a requirement can potentially drain money from our pockets. Having the freedom to redistribute other people's work results in people making money with other people's work. This is all right as long as no plagiarism is involved. This freedom results in multiple vendors that drive down the cost of software and keeps the price of software at a sane level.

If anyone can make money from redistributing improvements to free software, then anyone can make a business in improving and distributing free software. In fact there are businesses around that do exactly that. One example is Red Hat - their business model revolves around providing support for free software. People pay Red Hat money to support them with installation and maintenance. The money that Red Hat receives goes into pay programmers that work on improving free software. Red Hat's improvements get integrated into the free software community. The end result is better free software for everyone.

So once again, when we talk about free software think of free as in free speech NOT free as in free beer. With free software, everyone can win.

--Jisaku Jien

Chris Holt's picture

I appreciate the sentiments around your concepts of free and to be honest I am thinking of "free" as in free beer as well as the freedom to change the recipe. However, I am not advocating that all software should be given away, but I would like every non-profit to have access to free software that they can change and make work for themselves. Is there a business model in this? I am sure there is? We just need to work it out. Thanks for commenting.

barbarasamson's picture

Hi Chris:

I enjoyed reading your post. I also am an Ubuntu enthusiast and spend a fair bit of energy trying to convince people to use free and open source software. It seems to me that many of the use models you mention would be well served by Open Office. It has a wordprocessor, spreadsheet and database that are very powerful and well integrated. For electronic medical records, I recently tried installing (a beta version of) OSCAR. It looks like a useful system but the beta was kind of unstable. Anyway, I will look for future posts on this.

Barbara Samson

Chris Holt's picture

Thanks for the comment and you are correct about Open Office which is fantastic. I'll have a look at Oscar.The biggest issues concerning free software and electronic health records are security, privacy and data ownership. Thanks

Daniel Escasa's picture

Hello Chris, and welcome to the world of Free Software. I'd just like to clarify the issue by repeating my Subject line: Free Software programmers do not give away their software. I'd like to look at it as subjecting their code to audit and their software to wide-betas. For more, see this essay on the FSF site.

As an aside, albeit related: I've been debating with myself whether software freedom *necessariy* leads to free-as-in-beer.

As to a revenue model -- training and other services may cost. I know of a consulting company that helps customers in migrating from proprietary to Free Software, and their fees are hefty. Also look up the story of the Free snort and its commercial counterpart SourceFire. I can't find prices on their site, but I remember them to be in the low-to-mid five-figures.


Daniel O. Escasa
independent IT consultant and writer
contributor, Free Software Magazine (
personal blog at

Terry Hancock's picture

With all due respect to the whole "free as in speech" argument, two practical points need to be acknowledged:

1) Free-licensed software becomes zero-cost software in practice. Even if you charge at the initial point of distribution, somebody will almost certainly provide free hosting at some point. Free software companies don't usually sell software, they sell consulting or support.

2) Non-profit charity organizations are usually cash-poor and labor-rich. This means they care a lot about that $0 price tag, and not so much about difficulty of use, because they're probably going to get the consulting for free (pro-bono), anyway, from one of their many supporters.

I for one think we should all be okay with this. We're talking about people whose business is supporting the public good. We benefit in the same ways that everyone benefits from these organizations.

Most of the "free beer/free speech" arguments make loads of sense when dealing with for-profit businesses, where "time is money", but for non-profits, the world works a little differently. And I think we have to remember that's the PoV of this article.

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Chris Holt's picture


Chris Holt specializes in consulting for Government and NGO public health and social services organizations about software to assist with case management and patient management systems.
Check out his site at