Why free software is not a job killer

Is FLOSS taking away jobs from IT? Or is something else happening?

Catching up on the post-Holiday news, I read with interest this headline on today's ComputerWorld UK site:

"Does Free Software cost jobs?"

The author of the article is Dr. John Spencer, who laments that during the current recession, the message of free and open source software's (FLOSS) cost benefits have indeed been taken to heart… so much so that there are hardly any open IT jobs in the British education sector.

"I am feeling a little uneasy. As part of an Open Source company my mantra to education was 'reduce overheads, reduce support, save money, do more for less' …well the message got through... right alongside the recession. Trouble is we did not create a single long term job during this crusade. The company I was with has no-one now employed in any aspect of education."

I have to take Dr. Spencer at his word as far as the lack of IT (or ICT as they say on that side of the pond) jobs… he would certainly know better than I. For my own part, there seem to be IT gigs at the universities and colleges in my neck of the woods, but I also know for a fact that the use of FLOSS in those institutions is minimal. Which bolsters Spencer's point: where there is proprietary software, there is the need to support it, which creates more work.

At first, this seems a little bit odd. As much as I love and enjoy using FLOSS and value it for its steadiness and security, I also understand that I must also devote some time to maintaining it, just like any proprietary system. What's funny about my particular situation is that because I don't use Windows that often, I actually spend more time maintaining security updates on my Linux machines than I do my Windows client. But when you only use a PC an hour a week or so, versus near-24/7 uptime, you get that. If I were using my Windows computer more often, I know the maintenance time would be much higher.

And that's just the client machines I have. I've done enough systems administration to know that there are almost as many tasks in administering FLOSS software as proprietary. Sure, there's a lot less time spent looking for viruses on a Linux machine, but I still have to manage user accounts, provision machines, etc.

My puzzlement is cleared up when I note that the real issue Spencer seems to have a problem with is not FLOSS, but rather the cloud.

"All the developments in education are web-based and mostly leveraging globally available free stuff much of which indeed owes its existence to free, open source software. Virtually none of it represents a single British job."

Now we get to the core of the problem. Web-based, software services are what are driving the need for jobs down in Britain's (and presumably everywhere else's) IT. Because FLOSS enables much of this software as a service (SaaS), then it becomes the root cause of the reduction in jobs.

I come at this from two directions. First, I think there is a case to be made that IT infrastructures within organizations have certainly changed because of the influx of SaaS. On the most simple level, look at Gmail. Its popularity and that of other web-based mail services has made the need for an in-house mail administrator almost obsolete.

But I am a little hard-pressed to lay this all on FLOSS's feet. To be sure, quite a bit of SaaS-based technology is based on FLOSS. But not all, and nor are all of the final implementations open source. Gmail sits on top of Linux systems, to be sure, but you and I will likely never see the Gmail source code. Nor the BigTable database platform Gmail uses.

And so on.

I think a study on the effects of cloud and datacenter SaaS has on jobs across certain sectors would be interesting. SaaS may indeed be putting a ceiling and even pushing down on IT jobs. Or (as I suspect), it may be redistributing those jobs to other companies and sectors and there is no net loss of IT jobs across IT sectors. Or course, in the middle of this particular economy, it will be hard to tell if the IT jobs are down because of SaaS or general end-is-nigh economics, so such a study would be tricky at best.

Putting the blame on FLOSS alone is definitely not the answer.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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