Opinion: Open source support – as good as it should be?

Lack of responses to some survey questions could suggest a lack of cohesiveness in open source support for the enterprise

A survey of support-service providers for open source desktops, by Victoria University and the NZ Open Source Society (NZOSS), shows “the supply side of the [open source] economics equation is ready”, says NZOSS president Don Christie.

However, there are a few rough spots; for example in the vital task of accommodating or migrating away from mission-critical proprietary applications.

The survey asked respondents: “Please describe your organisation’s capabilities and experiences in migrating users to a free software desktop, while ensuring continued user access to existing systems.”

See also: Survey finds support available for open desktop shift
No responses were returned to this question — hardly encouraging for would-be desktop open-sourcers with a slew of proprietary apps.

The result could be misleading, Christie suggests. “I think we may have asked the question the wrong way.” His company, Catalyst IT, was part of the survey; “and we provide those services”, he says. But someone in the company clearly did not think so.

The society and university conducted the Public Sector Remix IT Vendor Capability Survey after government agencies identified third-party support availability as an essential enabler of free desktop software adoption.

Among a wide range of services, such as end-user support and mail and calendar integration, comparatively few — seven out of 32 — vendors provide user training.

The researchers quote one respondent: “most Windows or Mac users adapt to Kubuntu and Ubuntu well with only limited training required. Applications are relatively self explanatory with many reflecting the usage of familiar proprietary products.”

Yes, someone used to Windows can get by in Ubuntu — I do myself — but as game-players know, there is a world of difference between knowing the basic moves and playing well. With a desktop computer that can mean significant difference in productivity.

While it might take time to learn to use a new environment well, Christie says, a great deal of knowledge crucial to productivity, such as working with style-sheets, transcends particular operating systems.

Vendors were asked what proportion of their business is in open source: many reported more than 75 percent, but the other clump is in the “less than 5 percent” region. Relatively few fall between those extremes.

Christie presents this positively; it may represent “a lot of small players ready to blossom”, he says. But it may indicate barriers to growing beyond a small market share against established players.

If customers — especially small organisations — want to ensure a healthy growth of support services, Christie says, they should band together into user groups to “aggregate demand”. Yet curiously, the researchers suggest open-source developers might not be as collaborative as they say. The survey uncovered a bewildering range of products that the vendors supported and helped to develop.

“The cause of so many projects, many working towards similar goals, could likely be from a lack of communication in the free software community,” the researchers say.

The researchers seem to have sensed a lack of cohesiveness.

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