On the Benefits of Open Source

Given recent political events in the UK, it is not surprising to see that there are many groups organising a push for more open and transparent government.  There is a definite feeling that the people of the UK have a right to know what is happening in the corridors of power, not only in government, but also in the financial institutions that control the supply of credit.

It is not a particularly new revalation that transparency is a Good Thing, we all know this to be true of both government and business generally, regardless of the political and economic climate. It has just become a more central requirement. We certainly have reached a ‘crunch’ time.  For myself, a move towards openess is also becoming more important in the work that I do, which is why I’m looking into Open Source software.

Long before I got involved with Information Technology in general and web design in particular, the Open Source movement was thriving.  The early pioneers of computing usually had to build the computing hardware and figure out how to program it to work, the sharing of software code was no big deal, and in fact, then and now, magazines and books give step-by-step guides on how to code in software languages.  But as time went on, and competitive companies grew out of the primordial soup of academics and enthusiasts, naturally organisations became protective of their own software code and at the same time covet the code of others.  One only needs to look at the sheer volume of court cases against Microsoft alone, to understand how big an issue protecting software has become.  In 2006 Microsoft boasted of having 5,000 patents. In effect, that is 5,000 technologies that are proprietary to Microsoft alone.

The Open Source movement thinks there is a better way.

According to the Open Source Initative (OSI):

Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.

This is a proposition that makes sense to me, and no doubt to my clients also.  From my perspective, the Open Source movement allows me to quickly meet the needs of a client without having to reinvent the wheel.  I don’t want to spend time writing and testing a piece of software that may already exist, and neither do my clients want to wait and pay for the development of some custom code when there is something out there that does what they need for free.

I know what you are thinking. Free software surely cannot be of the same quality of the kind that you pay for, right? Well, take a look at Open Office,Moodle (used to run courses by the Open University), and even the software that powers this blog, WordPress.  Perhaps you are one of the 130 million people that regularly use the Firefox browser? Maybe you use the Thunderbird e-mail client? More importantly, LiunxApacheMysql and PHP(collectively known as LAMP) are all available under an Open Source licence of one sort or another.

You may never have heard of LAMP, but it is certain that you have made use of one or all of these technologies if you have ever spent time surfing the web. Indeed, it is safe to say that the development of the web would not have taken the same exponential curve without LAMP technologies.

When it comes to purchasing software, either in terms of a web site or enterprise software such as databases, servers or an office suite, it may well pay to take a look at the Open Source alternatives.  It could reduce initial costs and speed up the time to install (you don’t have to wait for delivery, most Open Source software can be immediately downloaded from the web).  A proper analysis of your requirements will lead to a list of possible solutions which in turn must be evaluated on thier own merits.  Anybody who thinks you should not even look at Open Source software to meet organisational needs is almost likely to be a victim or perpetrator of the tactics of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD).  Such people should clearly state their case as part of a proper requirements analysis.  Open Source certainly isn’t the solution to everything, but it might provide the solution your organisational needs right now.

It is no wonder that, in part thanks to FUD, the IT industry is controlled by hulking dinosaurs like Microsoft and IBM.  The fear of trusting a small yet independent company is pratically palpable when you consider that when things go smoothly in IT, no one notices, but if things don’t go as planned, questions will certainly be asked.

Perhaps it is a case of ‘better the devil you know’.  But when that ‘devil’ has practically locked you into their desktop Operating System, Server Operating System, Office Suite and web browser, Database software and software development language, coupled with a perpetual upgrade cycle that practically forces you to not only upgrade software for little tangible benefit, but also to upgrade hardware to cope with the additional software requirements, isn’t it time to give some serious consideration to the alternatives?

Microsoft, IBM, Apple, et al have their place in the IT industry. And they earnt it.  Heck, I use and advise on their products day in and day out.  But, perhaps as a consequence of the political and economic climate, the need for Open Source is becoming more central to business.  Even Microsoft is making small moves in this area by offering free development software and free accounting software, though it is not Open Source.  Perhaps in the face of competition from Google Docs (more free software) even Microsoft can see that a better sate of equilibrium is needed in the software industry.  The balance is tipped too far in favour of purchasing software sledgehammers to crack modest corporate nuts.

So, if Open Source software is ‘free’ (free sofware might not be Open Source), how will consultants and web designers and developers like me make a living? Well, there are a number of models that could be considered. Firstly, you might need help selecting the right software in the first place. I can help you install and configure the software.  I could support you on an ongoing basis.  Because the software is Open Source, you might need a part of it to be tweaked or changed to fit your needs, I could help with that.  So I wouldn’t be charging again and again for the same bit of software, but I’d be charging for my professional services in installing, tweaking, administering that software, training in how to use it, and generally helping my clients to eek out the best return on investment over the life-cycle of the software.  My role is to get clients into a position where they can choose solutions to fit their  business, not to deliberatly lock them into a proprietary system.

I was discussing these thoughts with a friend, and they said that whilst this sounded great for my clients, it perhaps wasn’t so great for me. Of course, this is a genuine concern, but there are examples of success using the Open source model.  In the final analysis I’d rather be rewarded for adding value to a business, not for selling bloated bits of software.

The Mozilla Project team call what they do ‘organic software‘.  We all understand that the point of organic food is not simply about making money.  Organic food producers must care about the sustainability of what they do, otherwise they will be out of business quickly.

My aim is to guide my clients to the right solutions to their problems, regardless of where or who the solution comes from.

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