commentary How will governments and large enterprises get their heads around the concept of open source software?
The concept that software can evolve by being developed, distributed to the community, improved and redistributed in a seemingly endless cycle is difficult for most commercially minded people to understand—let alone an organisation.
After all, we are all used to software being created, maintained and owned by an entity. Buying software means that the software is in a "final form" and we expect the owner to legally protect their software (source code). We patiently wait for updates and the software improves over time.
Yet while we have been doing this, the open software movement has been growing in the background, much like the Internet did in its early days. Software developed by this "new approach" circulates around the community and evolves at a pace incomprehensible to a traditional software development house. People in the community actually fix bugs, take the software to new levels and redistribute new versions.
This approach is called Open Source Software (OSS) and it could just be the biggest thing since the Internet. Has the time come for commercial organisations to ensure they are considering open source offerings when they evaluate traditional software? Could OSS adoption by commercial organisation develop local IT jobs?
Those that experienced the revolution away from proprietary hardware to open hardware will understand the drivers for OSS and not being locked into a particular vendor. Who hasn't been affected by their software vendor calling it quits, pulling out of the country or merging with someone you don't really want to do business with? Security remains on everyone's mind emphasised with vicious virus attacks on proprietary software. Surprisingly, OSS is likely to be more secure as more minds "plug" a problem at a quicker pace.
The casualties in the move to open hardware were enormous. Few even remember companies like Altos, Apollo, Bull, Burroughs, Concurrent, Data General, Digital, Pyramid, Sperry, and Tandem.
Software too will have winners and losers. Who are going to be the likely winners? Certainly professional services organisations, systems integrators, and a myriad of development organisations tailoring applications—all good for local IT economies. What a great position for Red Hat, and IBM—even Novell could be back from the wilderness with their acquisition of SuSe Linux and Ximian.
So will the revolution happen? In my opinion—it can't be stopped for one simple reason. The community innovators across the globe are passing laws to ensure open source is being considered and even adopted. Who are the community innovators? Government.
Governments often show the way with flexible working hours, new leave ideas and work practices. Invariably many of these "social experiments" pass onto business. Governments are the most important users of technology and commercial organisations will fall into line just to do business with them. In Australia, the ACT government is leading the way with adoption of a Bill specifying that public organisations ought to consider and prefer OSS offerings. The South Australian State Supply Amendment Bill is similar.
What about Microsoft? Very likely it will be pushed out of governments across the globe and then large corporate accounts at the operating system level. Initially, there will be lots of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) spread and then the discounts will follow. In the end, we will see something we haven't seen for a long time: Microsoft back in full flight and innovative again. That's something worth waiting for. It is likely to be a hardware vendor's dream—rapid software innovation and competition to push system requirements.
Sun has been a patient player with Open Office—a project through which it is releasing the technology for the StarOffice productivity suite. Novell will be there with Ximian offerings. Yet this is a tough market with extraordinary user expectations. It's one matter to grow OSS desktop market share 100 percent from 1-2 percent but a totally different matter to go to 25 percent+.
Edward Mandla is National President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). The ACS attracts a membership (over 16,000) from all levels of the IT industry and provides a wide range of services. The Society can be contacted on 02 9299 3666, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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