The State of Open Source

Stephen O’Grady has a great post analysing where the open source software movement is in the Startup, Growth, Maturity or Decline model.

Why would commercial organizations willingly cede the fruits of their labor to a market that might include their competitors? Because for software that is non-differentiating, that is not a competitive advantage – which for most non-technology firms is virtually all of their software – it will cost more over the longer term to author software privately than it would publicly. Facebook and Twitter demonstrate this quite adequately (coverage), true, but it’s not just the web firms. We see it when a hosting company (Rackspace) and space agency (NASA) jointly author a cloud computing stack that neither intends to create a software sales business around. We see it when Lockheed Martin launches an open source social networking project. And so on.

None of these can be characterized as decisions driven by idealism or emotion; they are simply the most logical means of developing software for companies that aren’t in the business of selling software. Make no mistake: we’re seeing a resurgence of roll your own software (coverage). The difference this time around is that by sharing the code developed internally as open source, it becomes possible to amortize the development costs across multiple organizations with similar needs. Worst case, you have the opportunity to lower your costs of talent acquisition; this, presumably, is one of the justifications for Google sharing details on its MapReduce and Pregel processing approaches.

Open source is something I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot recently and the more you dig into it, the more complicated it can get.

With government policy focusing more and more on using open source solutions, I wonder whether the understanding is there amongst those making buying decisions about the various licenses and business models that exist. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

It does strike me though that it is easy for a supplier to claim to provide an open source solution when in fact they don’t.

The advantages of open sourcing for both the supplier and customer, as Stephen notes in his post, are huge. But this really isn’t as simple as just saying that open source software is cheaper, or indeed ‘open’- there are lots of factors here and the implications of taking decisions around open source are potentially significant.

More on this in future posts.

Software Freedom Day

Next Saturday (September 20th) is Software Freedom Day:

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Our goal in this celebration is to educate the worldwide public about of the benefits of using high quality FOSS in education, in government, at home, and in business — in short, everywhere!

There are various get togethers happening around the world to celebrate – here are all the UK ones. If you’d like to know more about free software, this video from Stephen Fry is a pretty nice start:

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Other things you might like to do include tracking down your local Linux User Group – who can help and advise you on any issues you are having – and actually installing some open source software on your computer. Here’s some quick suggestions:

How else could you support or celebrate software freedom day?

Free software, or just go online?

Following some of the points made on my post about Kubuntu and Linux yesterday, I’ve been wondering a bit more about free software and how it might help people make the most of their equipment.

After all, software is expensive stuff. One of the great things about Kubuntu is that if I want a piece of software to a job, say editing graphics, all I have to do is call up the application manager, type in ‘graphics’ and it comes  up with a list of applications I can download and use straight away.

Things aren’t quite so easy with the Mac, of course, but at least that comes preloaded with the iLife suite, which means you can pretty much get on with most things out of the box.

Poor old Windows users are of course left behind in this. They don’t have any decent software pre-installed, by and large, and nor do they have access to a great open source application manager like Kubuntu comes with.

Having said that, an awful lot of the best open source apps are available for Windows users as well as Linux. But they are spread about on their own websites – though many are downloadable from sites like SourceForge – and how is the average user supposed to know they are there? If I want to create a podcast on my PC and need an audio editor, how do I know that Audacity is the package I want?

A great way of tackling this would be to create a simple CD, with all the main open source packages that people might want to use on a regular basis. You could burn and print a load to give away, and maybe make the ISO downloadable from a website.

Some of the software I would include on such a CD would be:

All of which are freely available (and more importantly, distributable) for Windows users.

But then… is this really the right way to go? In the age of Web 2.0, cloud computing, Google Docs and Zoho, do we really want to encourage people to be installing loads of desktop software? Or should we just point them to where they can download FireFox, and then giving them a list of bookmarks?

Maybe it depends on things like web connection speeds. Perhaps desktop software works better for some people than others

I’d be interested to hear what others think. Would a CD with preselected, quality open source software really make a difference to the way people use their PCs? Or should we be encouraging folk to use online tools, and to compute in the cloud?