Tim O’Reilly has an interesting post on why the GPLv3 took a pragmatic approach when it came to the “SaaS loophole” (i.e. SaaS apps aren’t redistributed; no redistribution means SaaS vendors can use GPLv2 code with modifications and keep the modifications to themselves).

Tim states in the comments to his post:

Having the source to Google or Amazon or eBay or CraigsList also won’t let you replicate the service, unless you have millions of dollars to spend on infrastructure, employees to manage the ongoing services, etc. etc.

I’ve found it amusing that OSS supporters calling for software vendors to open source all their software believe the future of the software market is SaaS+OSS. Let’s pause here for a second.

According to the FSF, here are the 4 freedoms that free software should provide:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Yes, free software and open source software is different (as RMS has often said). But OSS proponents rely heavily on the above 4 freedoms when describing why OSS is a better answer than Traditional software (…to what question?).

I’d argue that SaaS expressly prevents freedoms 1 through 3. Considering that SaaS delivers on only 1 of 4 freedoms that OSS proponents suggest are immutable, why the love between SaaS & OSS?

In a future with SaaS at the core of non-commercial user applications, I suggest that the key things that users will care about are the openness of:

The source to Gmail will not greatly help me replicate Gmail. But an open GUI api will help me (or someone else) create things like better Gmail without (messy & brittle) hacks.


PS: I doubt the success of SaaS in commercial user applications. I base this view mostly on the (un)willingness of IT managers & CIOs to cede control outside the walls. But I could be wrong here. Technology aside, we can’t overlook human nature.