The True Value of Nothing

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How much is GNU/Linux worth? Well, its price is zero, but it's clearly incredibly valuable: what to do? Here's what a new paper from the Linux Foundation did:

For this study, we used David A. Wheeler’s well-known SLOC tool, SLOCCount. SLOCCount makes use of the industry standard COnstructive COst MOdel (COCOMO), an algorithmic Software Cost Estimation Model5 developed by Barry Boehm. The model uses a basic regression formula, with parameters that are derived from historical project data and current project characteristics. We updated his study from 2002 to include the growing code base of the Linux kernel and other packages as well as the higher annual salary of a software developer.

In other words, they counted the number of lines of code, and multiplied by a rough number that seemed about right. The results?

we estimate that it would take approximately $10.8 billion to build the Fedora 9 distribution in today’s dollars, with today’s software development costs. Additionally, it would take $1.4 billion to develop the Linux kernel alone.

Now, it is easy to quibble with the details and the result, but the important thing is that this study establishes a scale: we're not talking about millions of pounds, even tens of hundreds of millions of pounds, but probably billions to tens of billions. That's some gift to the world. It also represents a very real saving to the companies that use GNU/Linux – indeed, the global savings are likely to be several times the nominal cost of development, even on a conservative basis.

There's also an interesting implication for software companies, as one of the authors of the report points out:

”This year has seen an incredible proliferation of Linux-powered devices outside of traditional Linux strongholds: netbooks like the eeePC, mobile phones like Android and the Gphone, and consumer devices like the Amazon Kindle. Would these products be possible without Linux?” said McPherson. “I think this points to the power of the collaborative development model. Monopolistic software companies used to be able to fund heavy R&D budgets, keeping out competition. Given the cost associated with building an OS like Linux, one wonders if proprietary companies will ever go it alone again.”

Against that background, Steve Ballmer's recent comments about Windows 7 take on a new significance:

"Windows Vista is good, Windows 7 is Windows Vista with clean-up in user interface [and] improvements in performance," Ballmer said.

In other words, Windows 7 is not some radical re-write, but an incremental improvement. Maybe not even Microsoft can afford to write an entire operating system from scratch: maybe Windows Vista is *it*, the basis for everything that comes afterwards, the end of the line. And if there is no light at the end of the Microsoft tunnel, no hope for anything better, the time to accept the multi-billion pound gift of GNU/Linux is *now*.

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