Open Source is Like Water (Part 1)

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 5:23 PM

Earlier today I was sitting at a restaurant with my fiancé (who I refer to as Wife 2.0 Release Candidate 1 to my technically inclined friends) and she asked me what was in the bag that I had brought home with me from work today. I told her that it is the latest distribution of SuSE Linux that I had purchased at CompUSA.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, and asked me (intelligently, I might add), “But I thought that Linux is free?” to which I replied “Yes, it is.”.

This begged the question: “Then why did you have to purchase it?”

I thought about the question for a moment, and reflected back on all of the things that I have read: RMS declaring that English doesn't represent the word “free” properly, to all of the tag lines that I have read over the years from distribution makers. None of these would have helped her understand why I spent money on something that is supposed to be free. It also would not have made me look any smarter, since I, well, just spent money on something that is supposed to be free!

It was about this time that the waitress brought us our glasses of water and asked for our dinner orders. I looked at the water for a second, and it suddenly became very clear to me what I needed to say.

After placing our orders, I watched the waitress rush to the kitchen. Then I began an explanation of what Linux, and more generally, Open Source Software really is. I will reiterate the explanation here, in the present tense, as speaking in the past tense is giving me a headache.

Open Source (and “free”) software is like water. You can get it for free from any stream, although you have to get to the stream with something to carry the water in. For the last few decades, corporations with only greed to guide them have polluted our water supplies. You can still go to a mountain stream and get cool, clear and clean water, but who has the time? Linux, in this water analogy, comes from such a stream. The water is pure. Since the stream is not very easy to reach, some companies have undertaken the arduous task of bottling the water for public consumption. In Linux terms, these are called “distributions.”

So even though I can go out and download several gigabytes of data and assemble all of the bytes into a working operating system on my home server, I prefer to buy the bottle, err… distribution, from the store shelf, knowing that someone else has taken a lot of time to put all of those billions of bytes into a known working order for me already. It is nice to know that I will not have to worry about dropped ftp connections causing corrupted files, or spend my time actually assembling all of those bytes into what may not be the right order when I'm done.

Steven R. Hatfield is associate editor of Open for Business. Steven is also an IT worker at a large financial company. You can contact him at