I have not heard open source talked about in a LONG time. I really think social media (namely Twitter and Facebook) have consumed much of the “media ink”.
Open source, as you might remember, is software – available free for use and modification. Open source includes operating systems such as Linux, or CRM programs such as SugarCRM.
Open source developers make their money from companies hiring them to install or customize the software.
One reason we have been hearing less about open source is that due to the rise of hosted applications, “software” is really a moot point – it’s not really relevant. Of course in a discussion of servers and cell phones, open source applications to power these devices (including cars, consumer devices and appliances, it is still quite relevant).
In the interview below I spoke with Eric Mandel, CEO of web host and managed services provider BlackMesh Inc’s about open source.
What is open source?
Most businesses are familiar with commonly used software, such as products by Microsoft, Oracle and Intuit. This software is proprietary, meaning the source code is not available to the public and the copyright holder retains all of its rights, including the right to charge for software, which most do. In contrast, open source generally refers to software that redistributes its source code, which gives the user certain rights which typically are reserved for the copyright holder.
Examples of open source software include Linux and most of the tools that run on it, the Firefox browser, the Thunderbird email client, and OpenOffice, a free replacement for Microsoft Office. The Firefox browser is the most popularly used open source application and is often considered a more secure alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Has open source changed from what it was 5 years or 10 years ago to today?
Open source has matured greatly over the last decade as businesses have shown an open source model can be profitable. Many businesses now thrive in the open source ecosystem, providing and using services from ERP and CRM to disaster recovery and email that are based on open source technologies.
Early adoption was driven mostly by philosophical and practical reasons.
The practical driving force was that people needed software they could customize and there were no commercial offerings that met their needs, while the philosophical drivers were mostly academic institutions releasing their own source code. Today, open source technologies have matured to the point that the most practical reason to use them is the cost and its impact on bottom line.
Open source is not only seeing increased popularity on the commercial side, but also within the government. For example, the Obama administration is using the open source content management system Drupal to deliver its promise of transparency through web sites such as http://recovery.gov and http://usaspending.gov. In addition, a new advocacy group, Open Source for America (http://www.opensourceforamerica.org/), was recently created to help teach the federal government about open source’s benefits and advocate for open source’s adoption.
Why open source?
When leveraged properly, small businesses can reap the many benefits of open source including:
• Ability to reduce costs by eliminating software acquisition and on-going licensing fees
• Access to a large talent pool of developers to support the open source technologies
• Use of a tested, secure, reliable platform to build upon for specific needs. This could be as simple as a Web site or as complicated as a large software application
• Availability of a large number of free, existing applications to address business needs and issues
How does one evaluate the “free” aspect of open source vs. paying for the customization or consulting services possibly needed for the software?
Open source is considered a movement guided by the principle that information should be free. Within the open source community, the different meanings of free are differentiated by saying “free as in free speech, not as in free beer.” In one context free refers to your rights and in the other it refers to the price.
The free aspect of open source refers to your rights, in this case the acquisition of the technology, and not the costs of open source. The cost aspect of open source is in paying someone for their knowledge and experience to help you use the technology. Open source allows you to do everything yourself, or, if you prefer, to hire someone to do it for you.
If you have the time, you can learn to use open source without ever needing to pay a dime to anyone. For small projects, a technical person can learn what they need to complete their project without any outside assistance. Almost every open source project has a home page which includes resources for getting a project started and contributing to the project.
For example, on the OpenOffice home page, http://openoffice.org, the first link is for new users wanting to learn about the project. However, in an organization without technical expertise (or the time resources for an open source education) it is good to weigh the cost of paying for software that comes with support (Microsoft Office) against the cost it would take to implement and maintain open source software (OpenOffice).
In the end, the decision to pay someone versus spending your own time becomes a business or personal decision instead of a technical decision.
Is open source “anti-Microsoft”?
Anti-Microsoft sentiment is really prevalent in the open source community. On most levels, Microsoft as a company is against open source because tools like Google’s Chrome and software as a service (i.e. Salesforce) are a threat to its business model. Having said that, Microsoft is trying to improve its image in and relations with the open source community. For example, it recently released some driver software as open source code under the General Public License (GPL). Admittedly, this was done for practical reasons, but it is still a start.
Ramon Ray is the editor and tech evangelist for Smallbiztechnology.com