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Rediff.com  » Business » Why open source software is hot

Why open source software is hot

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December 20, 2005 11:44 IST

What is common ton products such as JBoss and Mono framework? Nothing, except that both of them are open source initiative in Java and .NET world.

Products like Linux, Apache Web Server, and JBoss have shown that open source software can be technically superior to any commercial software available. These products have been successful in competing and acquiring market share with some commercial software equivalents such as Microsoft, Sun, BEA systems and IBM. Companies such as RedHat, have coupled open source software with a viable business strategy for a sustainable long term haul.

The purpose of this article is to outline some ways to make business sense of open source software. Open source has joined the main stream. Studies, surveys and experience have shown that majority of IT managers of global corporations are using open source software.

In several domains, there are competing open-source and commercial software choices for enterprises to choose from. In reality, I suspect, most of the companies developing commercial software are using open source behind the scenes. At least this is true to certain extent in Java world, where the majority of Java library framework is open source.

What is open source software?

According to Wikipedia, open source is regarded by some as a philosophy and by others a pragmatic methodology, relates to practices in the production of products which promote access to their sources.

The IT community in general, the developers and producers had used many different phrases and jargon words before, it was not until the 1998 when open source became a brand to denote widely adopted as the early Internet years provided a rapid convergence of socially diverse production models.

Technically, 'open source' means software that is supplied with the original code in which it was written allowing others to view, modify, adapt, and improve the code.

This can include software that cannot be redistributed without explicit permission (and often a payment) to the software owner. Most people now define "open source" more narrowly to as software with the following further characteristics:

  • It is protected by copyright, but not patents.
  • It has a 'copy-left' license (GNU license or similar), which states that it can be redistributed for no charge, but the source code and modifications must be licensed out under the same terms that it was licensed in. Please visit the http://www.opensource.org to learn about the intricacies and latest updates on open source licensing.

Please note, that it is acceptable to sell commercial software in a bundle with this 'open source' software. Open source software is not the same as 'shareware' or 'freeware' which often does not come with source code and has zero cost as its defining characteristic. Open source software, may or may not be zero cost.

The benefit of open source software is that when people are allowed to read, distribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves and gets better.

History of open source

The concept of open source software evolved as early as 1960s. Most software developed then was readily given out to users in order to better the experience for all users.

In the 1980s, the free software movement led by Richard Stallman began its campaign for free software, meaning software that respects users' freedom and community.

Stallman asserted that software should be treated the same way as academic research is treated. The source code (knowledge) should be available to others just like academic papers circulate freely.

Science advances because knowledge is shared, subject to peer review, and built on by others. GNU Emacs editor and GNU C compiler was among Stallman's early successes which continue to be popular in their categories.

Stallman created the GNU license and the concept of 'copy left' to ensure these products were open to others to improve. The GNU license is the basis for most open source licenses.

Another major milestone was the development of Linux, which was developed by a large, geographically dispersed team of unpaid programmers sharing code over the Internet, coordinated by Linus Torvalds.

This group created an operating system that was more robust, elegant and error-free than UNIX or Microsoft Windows and they created it in much less time and cost. This further proved the power of this software development model.

There is an interesting background to Apache Web Server. A group of Web administrators took some freely-available code for a web server and patched it to create a 'patchy Web server' that became named 'Apache' Web Server, and this became the best web server available on the internet.

Although Microsoft has tried to displace this by distributing its IIS Web Server at no cost as part of the Windows operating system, Apache continues to be more popular, helping to substantiate the benefits of the open cooperative software development.

In English, 'free' also means zero cost (free as in beer), the movement adopted the term 'open source' to help clarify that this category of software can be sold, as long as programmers have the "freedom" to view, modify, and redistribute the product along with its source code.

Open source software: business proposition

In the late 1990s companies started working out how to turn the superior reliability and development speed of shared open software development into a business proposition.

The following are some of the most popular business ways companies are doing this:

  • Sell service and support of open source software that your company does not control. This is what companies like Red Hat and Suse (Novell) do with Linux, which is controlled by Linus Torvalds and his followers.
  • Create open source software your firm controls, and sell service, support, and commercial versions related to this software. Examples are: JBoss, the #3 Java-based Web Application Server; OpenOffice (StarOffice), Sun Microsystems' alternative to Microsoft Office and mySQL, a database that competes against Oracle and IBM's DB2.
  • Sell a product or service that uses open source software as an element of a total solution offering. This is what companies do when they make commercial
  • Web applications that use PHP, run on Linux, are written in Perl or provide web services running on the Apache Web Server.
  • Provide open source software for hardware you sell. For example, companies that make computer printers sometimes provide the source code for their printer drivers so that experienced programmers can adapt these printer drivers to fit operating systems or perform functions that the company is not interested in writing themselves. As a result of having the drivers available as open source, the company sells more printers.
  • Open source a software product to reduce support costs at the end of life.
  • Companies, by adopting open source improve their reputation and reduce the support and maintenance costs for products, where the revenue growth is flat. On the other hand, for new applications, products and services, companies have embraced open source, to develop the commodity at low cost and achieve higher revenue growth.
  • Provide dual licensing for a software product. This is actually how mySQL is marketed. Companies can either use the version based on an open source license for free or can pay to have a license that allows them to sell a modified version of the database as part of their total product offering.
  • Build an ecosystem. For example Palm has successfully shared the source code of their PDAs to make it easier for other companies to write software that works with this product, making the overall offering more attractive.

Open Source Resources

It is worth pointing out that there are a lot of development and marketing opportunities available when a company chooses to go down the open source route that are not available if you keep your software proprietary. These can improve product quality, reduce development cost or reduce marketing cost.

Examples are:

  • Quality control and improvement. By providing your source code, others can review this and suggest improvements and provide valuable feedback.
  • New applications. By providing your source code, others can adapt this to applications you never thought of.
  • Easy distribution. There are many websites such as FreshMeat and SourceForge etc) that will freely publicize your open source product.

Conclusion

This article just portrays an outline about the avenues available to make money from Open Source.

The author has been working in the IT industry in various capacities, currently working for a Houston, Texas-based company.

Sudhi Seshachala
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