Thursday, September 09, 2004

Open Source Software -- How do we engage the community?

When people hear the phrase "Free and Open Source Software," they immediately think of "free" in economic or monetary terms. While this concept applies, the term is really intended to address, as the community puts it, "free as in freedom, not free as in beer."

This "community" that I speak of is made up of software architects, developers, even a few documentation writers, who commit their time and talent to projects where the only compensation to be had comes in the form of gratitude from their fellow developers and the user community for a job well done. This fact alone stymies the capitalist-minded proprietary software developers who have a hard time understanding that there are more rewards in life than pure monetary gain.

In the face of this unknown entity, many prominent software producers have reacted with a campaign of fear, uncertainty and doubt to try and corral the concept of free and open software into a thing they can compete against. This campaign has taken hold, and in some cases factionalized the user base into those who are for the concept of open software and those who are against it. Each group looks to the other with pity, thinking that "they just don’t get it." The fact is that there is a place in most organizations for both kinds of software, and better education can empower decision-makers to choose the right path at the right time.

The question at hand is, "Does open source software have a place at my company?" My answer to that is that there is and will continue to be a place here and elsewhere for open source software, and that the true question lies elsewhere.

Open source software packages are in broad use on many companies' systems whether they realize it or not. Many vendors choose the Apache web server over proprietary ones for inclusion in their products; Perl is a standard language for development on both Unix and Windows systems, and the venerable Sendmail handles the e-mail needs of most Unix servers. The list continues, but I think you get the idea…

But "Open Source" isn’t a product or group of products, it’s a different philosophy around software development and distribution. Traditional support is available, feature sets are robust, and code quality is good. The variances in these categories are broad, just as they are with closed-source software, and should, as always, be top on the list of questions when considering new packages to implement. The question that needs addressing, though, is how our comapnies want to participate in the open source software community. Do we continue as consumers, or do we start giving back to the community that we take from?

In many industries, vertical market software vendors, self-described "industry experts," are getting fat on licensing and consulting fees for software that, in many cases, is crippled, light on features, and poorly documented. They charge us to tell them what the software should do, charge us for the software, then charge us again to fix the problems that we spent the time to test for. Software implementation requires a fleet of lawyers, a ton of paperwork, and hours of project management time that could be better utilized elsewhere.

Take, for example, the energy industry [In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I currently work in the energy industry, no pun intended]. There are over a hundred and fifty electric utilities, large and small across the United States and Canada that collaborate to keep the lights on and motors turning in a giant electrical grid. If even a portion of those companies contributed some part of their technical staff to projects geared to developing free and open source software for the utility industry, the cost to serve loads would drop dramatically, retained earnings would go up, and those utilities would take back control of their information systems from the life-stealing software vendors that hold them hostage.

[Okay, so we've hit upon a sore spot. I will say that I've encountered vendors that were truly top notch. But I've encountered far more that are just as I describe them above. Remember, "V is for Vendor, V is for Vampire." I'm sure that will get me in trouble with the next vendor I deal with, but I'll just tell them they're in the other group. It might actually be true. ]

So, does open source software have a place in your company or mine? Yes it does. Should our companies contribute to the open source community and take charge of our information systems? For us, I believe so. For you, the decision is in your hands.

Links to follow up:

If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.


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