The Lack of Open Source Warranties, Revisited
By Bill Claybrook
October 23, 2003
To gain more insight into proprietary software warranties and the lack of open source warranties, I spoke to Red Hat and SuSE.
Open source warranties do not exist. Users of Red Hat Linux [ http://aberdeen.com/ab_abstracts/2002/12/12022968.htm ] and SuSE Linux do not buy software licenses. They are free. But companies such as Red Hat and SuSE do sell maintenance and support contracts that provide the same type of support that proprietary software vendors provide with respect to resolving software problems. With either proprietary software or open source software, users pay for support, directly or indirectly. Users who download open source software from the Web do not pay for support. Rarely, if ever, is support provided for downloaded, free software. Users of open source software, however, often have options for the level of support that they desire; whereas, a proprietary software license is usually a fixed price per CPU, number of users, etc. Generally, proprietary software vendors offer more comprehensive software maintenance and support than is provided via the software license, but at additional costs.
Generally, the following paragraphs describe how Red Hat and SuSE handle support for software problems. A problem occurs when software does not work according to its documentation and specification. When a problem occurs, Red Hat and SuSE respond as quickly as possible to resolve the problem. In no case does a user have to directly contact any open source developer or organization. If the problem is with Red Hat or SuSE developed code, then their developers create a patch for the user. When a problem occurs with "third party" open source code, they look internally to determine if the bug is a well-known one. If it is, then they create a patch, one may already exist.
If the problem is with open source software such as Apache, then there is a good chance that Red Hat and SuSE has one or more developers who are regular contributors (both companies do have contributors) to Apache. They create a patch for the user. If it is not a well-known bug, then they replicate the problem and work within the open source community to determine if someone has had this problem. If there is a patch available, then they test the patch and bring the patch to the customer. If there is no known solution or the patch is unsuitable, then they may work with the developer of the software to create a patch or they may create the patch themselves.
Except for the way a software problem is resolved and cost (of proprietary software license versus open source support contracts, there is little difference between a proprietary software limited warranty and an open source support and maintenance contract. They are both designed to resolve customer problems. When you read or hear that open source does not have warranties, you understand correctly, but open source vendors do provide maintenance and support contracts, usually at less cost than proprietary software licenses, that perform the same function.