Open Source Unwrapped
by Judith Hurwitz, CEO
One of the most important aspects of open source is its power and potential. Whenever the best minds in an industry join forces to create value, the potential is enormous. This has happened with space, cancer research, and the initial Internet itself. There are also political ramifications behind the open source movement. One can draw parallels between the open source movement and the open systems movement of the late 1980s. The open systems movement was intended to loosen IBM’s stranglehold on computing. Likewise, the open source movement may well have its roots in loosening Microsoft’s grip on power.
Clearly, the open source movement is complex for customers to understand. What does it mean if a community contributes code to an initiative? What is the difference between free software that is in the public domain and software that is owned by one company but licensed in an open source manner? Many IT professionals are under the impression that all open source approaches are the same. Some believe that open source is about free software with no boundaries. No more license fees; just pick up software and use it without constraints. The reality is actually quite different. The value of open source is as much in the process as the results.
There are three components to successful open source software: the development community; the availability of service and support; and the commercialization.
The Development Community
With open source software, there can be a sophisticated community of developers who care deeply about the value of the technology and are ready and willing to invest in creating value. These developers make it their business to correct problems so that the overall product is much better and more sophisticated than could be done by a single company. This is actually more complex than one might think. All open source communities are not the same. The first question you should ask yourself is how deep is the community behind the development and nurturing of this product? For example, a company with a product that is suffering in the market might view putting that product into the open source market as a way out of a problem. The company might be in financial trouble. There may be too few developers who care about the software to make it a viable open source candidate. At its best, well-designed open source software with a sophisticated community advances innovation forward at a rapid pace. At its worst, open source can be a dumping ground for unwanted software.
Service and Support
Once a piece of software makes it into the open source community and an organization decides to adopt it, the real work begins. One of the most important aspects of open source software is the availability of a strong service and support component. Too often a developer picks up a piece of open source code without understanding the infrastructure for support or even considering the issue of support. If the software is to become a critical component of a commercial environment or an application environment that runs a critical corporate function, then there must be a network of support and service organizations. One of the key distinctions in the market is the difference between the free versions of an open source product and one that has a price tag associated with it because of service and support. If an open source product is being used to experiment, by all means organizations should use the free option. Many very small companies will invariably use free versions of open source software. Sophisticated developers who can afford to take the risk are often well equipped to deal with the uncertainties, but the business needs to know that it has assumed the responsibility for supporting that software. For organizations that require stability and accountability in their environment, open source needs to be handled in the same way one would handle a traditional software environment.
One of the emerging problems of open source is the issue of intellectual property ownership. It is not unusual for a piece of code to be mistaken for open source when it is, in actuality, proprietary code belonging to a software vendor. If this code makes it into commercial products or even into a corporate infrastructure there could be serious legal ramifications. It is important that companies make sure that they are buying open source software from organizations that will protect the integrity of their offerings. The combination of a true open source community that is dedicated to quality with a company that understands how to create true commercial software provides the best of both worlds. There are situations where open source offers another valuable service. There are software products that are owned by companies that no longer have the interest or financial capability to keep the products moving forward. If there is a customer base and a developer base that still cares about the product, moving it into open source may save the technology.
The Bottom Line
Clearly, there is immense value in the open source movement and the benefit of having the best minds in the technology space cooperate for the betterment of software solutions. The open source movement puts pressure on pricing and software quality. However, there are issues that are important to remember. Open source does not mean free software. Software must be supported and commercialized if it is to have the type of quality and support customers expect. Most important, not all open source software is the same. Hurwitz & Associates predicts that a focused and appropriate open source movement will continue to thrive and grow because of the controls and organization behind it.