Where do we begin when it comes to separating the open source words from the business reality? Where is open source in business and, in particular, in New Zealand business?
NZ slowly opens up
Almost half of New Zealand's 20 largest user organizations have deployed an open source operating system or applications (most of them Linux). However, only a small number of the country's biggest IT organizations currently run their business critical systems on open source, and only a small number of these have increased their investment in it. The public sector, though, may become the global engine of change for the way software is licensed and deployed.
As reported in Computerworld in October, a deal has been struck that allows agencies throughout government access to open source software (Novell's Suse Linux server and its Linux Desktop) and support from Novell at preferential rates in a syndicated procurement contract. In this arrangement, a lead agency signs the main deal and others are allowed access to the products and services on the same terms. Novell has been supplying Inland Revenue, the lead agency in this first instance, with networking software, as well as with open source product for a pilot. Agencies will also be able to access other open source products such as MySQL with full support.
New Zealand Green Party MP Nandor Tanczos has said that a Ministry of Education tender to develop open source firewall and filtering software would provide the leg-up a local company needs to develop such software for the New Zealand market. And most developers Computerworld spoke to agree that it would be good for the country.
"OSS in general is a position that can be very easily supported by the broad political spectrum. It's very business friendly, it's great for building up local capacity without having to invent it all here," says Donald Christie of developer Catalyst. "The Greens have certainly been consistent in their support for OSS, and I notice ACT's leader Rodney Hide was talking about having installed Linux on his laptop a while ago."
And in the US, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently decreed that all government documents should be in OpenDocument Format, which was developed by a pan-industry group including, crucially, Microsoft. The state will only purchase software that supports this format. Three open source office packages, OpenOffice, AbiWord and KOffice do, but Microsoft refuses to support it and, as might be expected, is using its influence to lobby the state to change its requirements.
The current release of OpenOffice, meanwhile, offers full compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. The developers achieved this by reverse engineering, as the specification of the file formats is a closely guarded secret. "I can write Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on my Linux laptop and read files created by others 99% of the time," says Egressive's Lane. "Until Microsoft adopts open standards, however, it'll be up to people who are willing to trade the many benefits open source offers against the occasional issue with proprietary file compatibility."
Not so usable
Not everybody is as upbeat about OSS applications. In their 2002 paper Usability and Open Source Software, David M Nichols of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Waikato and Michael Twidale of the Graduate School of Library and Information at the University of Illinois, made the point that OS products developed for less technical users often fail to meet end-user expectations because "the wrong kind of eyeballs" (OS developers, rather than newbie users) look at but fail to see any usability issues.
Nichols and Twidale also controversially claimed that open source software has an even greater tendency towards software bloat than commercial software. "There is a strong incentive to add functionality and almost no incentive to delete functionality, especially as this can irritate the person who developed the functionality in question."
But Waid of IOPEN disagrees. "To me, 99% of Microsoft Word is 'bloat' because I deal primarily in plain text. I'd guess that 90% of users would probably only use 5% of the functionality of a modern word processor, and yet the remaining 10% would complain bitterly if that extra functionality was removed. The same 10% quite probably doesn't use the same set of features regularly." Waid points out that much open source software is developed on a 'benevolent dictator' model, where one person controls all additions to the software and says yes or no to new features. "Features aren't typically just added to software without some discussion first."
Steve Lewin, director of intellectual property at Quantel Business Science, a company that develops business improvement measurement systems, says open source bloat is marginal, and that applications with excess functionality are really suffering from a lack of leadership and architectural design that could just as easily occur in the world of proprietary software. "Microsoft Office is, I think, the leading application in the world for code bloat, and open source applications are just tagging along behind."
But although open source applications may continue to lag in functionality, a wind of change is clearly blowing internationally. Brazil, Germany, France, Finland and the Philippines, are just a few governments being wooed by open source.
Bill Gates can say all he likes about commies, the indicators -- including US judicial and European antitrust decisions -- suggest the Cold War being waged between big commercial software houses and open source vendors may have a rather different outcome than the one that halved the number of the world's superpowers.