Open Source Software – Misguided fervour?

Posted on April 19, 2011


Open Source Software (OSS) is a debate championed by the many who never evolve beyond the self-manifested state of being the a beneficiary of what is perceived as free software (a fundamentally flawed assumption), versus the few (very few) who actually actively utilise the open code nature at the core of the ‘Open’ prefix in the nomenclature .

Open Source Software OSS is a proverbial ‘Iceberg’ on the IT ocean, 80% of its reality is hidden. For any enterprise lacking the credibility to allow solutions to be judged all in on their own merits, but instead dictate a technology choice for what would otherwise be nothing more than a whim, they are imposing a disproportionate level of risk on their enterprises if not their own Titanic scenario.

The twin face of OSS seems to be – ‘Its Free Software’ and or ‘The code is Open to be freely modified so I am not in the grips of big commercial organisations ’.  I struggle with the merits of this, as do many in the industry, in the face of overwhelming evidence that OSS is in most cases AS expensive (and that is being conservative) as a comparable commercial solution when all elements of the solution lifecycle are weighed in the balance.

Oh yes and then there is the interoperability chestnut. A non-start in today’s world where the very interoperable nature of software is so material to its value that commercial ‘closed’ software offers greater interoperable convenience and certainty than Open Source. The access to modify code directly is  one of those Iceberg factors, as soon as enterprises start re-writing OSS solutions they are in effect becoming Software Companies responsible for their own proprietary solutions(s), hardly convenient!

At last year’s Cloud Forum in London I was encouraged to hear all the commercial software vendors stating how critical interoperability is in the new world of Cloud. That they regard making their software ‘Open’ to established standards of interoperability is a fundamental requirement.

The bizarre thing is that bespoke solutions for some cannot even be written in a mature programing language such as Microsoft’s C # (pronounce C sharp) despite the fact that the customer would have full access to the code! This even extends to hosting in our increasingly Cloud Centric world.  This is not rational judgment.

Not all Commercial Software is off limits……

Want to engage some IP Microsoft? Microsoft IP Ventures Program  which in summary recognises that all it could never actively engage all the R&D ideas that are created and patented from its Billions of dollars of research over the years. So it has opened up its IP ‘warehouse’ and anyone can take advantage of this and Microsoft provides some technology transfer support, including training! Yes there are licensing agreements and terms to be negotiated but these are mutually rewarding and an encouraging and practical sign of market support in this area.

Increasingly when I debate the subject with OSS advocates, in their majority they are using the ‘Free’ Google platform. The irony of which is often lost on them, after all Google is one of the most pernicious Commercial Bandwagons in IT. Users of its ‘Free’ software are sacrificing privacy and often security, not to mention reliability based on past performance, and subjecting themselves to a more thorough than usual harvesting of usage statistics. Many question this is as a free and open exchange.

Open Source Software (OSS) is, when all accounted for, not ‘free’ the free availability belies a minefield of indirect and direct overheads that very quickly erode any saving on licensing costs or benefits of having direct code access. In fact the ability to manipulate code itself manifests complications and costs as the unique nature the code takes on isolates the organisation from reliable support and maintenance. This maroons adopters adrift on a sea of community support and functional evolution that is unpredictable, albeit for a hard core of OSS applications that have reached a viable critical mass for commercial support to sustain them. Such evolved platforms having adopted much of the mantle of closed code software and almost indistinguishable in terms of how it is sold and consumed.

Having spent many years doing advocacy work representing small and Medium sized IT companies, it became clear very early on that far from stimulating an ‘Open’ attitude towards software the OSS movement was perhaps the most closed and inflexible groups to engage. Instead of supporting the development and evolution of software, OSS prioritisation in the public sector has had the effect of actively putting roadblocks in place for 10’s of thousands of Small Medium Enterprise (SME) Independent Software Vendors and Service companies reliant on some of the large Software vendors. Shunting proprietary software into a cul-de-sac and creating an environment akin to a Software Apartheid, stifling innovation and investment.

The second realisation was that the views of OSS shared with me were somewhat dogmatic; an issue that was challenging to engage without emotive influence cast discussions very quickly into the maelstrom of something akin to a religious debate. Belief is one of those intangibles that when applied to a business discussion can fly in the face of business realities, with views falling back on the shifting sands of emotion, little room for the commercial realities demanded by investors. This is the point at which the rational simply back off and accept an individual’s view, no amount of evidence will swing such opinion, and rightly so, our beliefs are our personal havens that are truly unassailable by others if we so desire.

It was the realisation amongst many Policy makers that they had been somewhat blinkered by this that has actually allowed the balance shift back into a more realistic middle ground. A middle ground that is founded on the tenants of choice and value; that each offering should stand on its own merits in an open market; devoid of the distortion that forced public sector into creating a closed market.

It is encouraging to see the commission here in Europe openly supporting the level playing field between Open and ‘closed’ source software by advocating that solutions and product must stand on its own merits Quote: ‘The Commission is technologically neutral and does not require European Union member states to prefer a particular category of software or business model over another’. Reference the recent article in the New York Times.