Christchurch IT scene: Free and open source

Egressive founder Dave Lane on Drupal, Microsoft, Apple and rooting your Android device

In April last year Computerworld added a comments section to its website and one of the most prominent contributors – particularly on articles about open source and software patents – has been Dave Lane.

So a trip to learn about the Christchurch IT scene would not have been complete without catching up with Lane. When I arrived at the address for his company Egressive that was listed on its website, I found a half-demolished building. An elegant historic building, it had fallen victim to the earthquake, though I discovered its fate had not affected the enthusiasm of its former occupant when I tracked him down at his temporary offices.

He had just returned from a Drupal conference in Australia. This is the open source platform for, according to Lane, more than seven million websites around the world. He began using Drupal – which is written in PHP – in 2005, seven years after establishing Egressive in 1998.

A former research scientist, when he immigrated to New Zealand from Seattle, his first job was with one of the Crown Research Institutes (which he doesn’t name “to protect the guilty”). Based first in Lincoln University and then in Canterbury University, Lane became frustrated by the limited IT services available and started working on creating better systems using Linux and open source methods. He soon became the official IT manager for the South Island but, when it was decided to implement Lotus Notes, and he realised this involved a shift to Microsoft Windows, he quit and began Egressive.

“The word Egressive is a play on the word Egress,” he says, explaining that he wanted to provide companies with a credible, open source alternative to proprietary software such as Microsoft’s suite of products.

Lane acquired clients such as the Antarctic Centre and Mt Cook Ski Planes and gradually took on nine staff, providing IT services. “The interesting thing was that because our systems were so reliable and we provided all of our systems remotely from servers in our office, we just proactively did updates and so on for our customers. We spent a lot of our time twiddling our thumbs, because we didn’t have a lot of support to do,” he says.

So Lane set about learning how to create a website in order to attract more business. A friend from Switzerland who was a contributor to PHP was visiting to take part in Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and in return for bed and board he helped Lane build the site. That was in 2001. Since then Lane has acquired a more extensive knowledge of open source and become a passionate advocate of free source software.

He uses social networking sites such as Twitter and identi.ca to keep in touch with Drupal developers all over the world, and he says drupal.org is a huge resource. “Drupal is effectively the body of a Swiss army knife and you can choose which blades you want to stick in it. There are a few useful blades that it comes with, but you stick other ones in depending on what you want to achieve,” he says.

For Lane the open source model allows people to get credit for their work without stifling the creativity of others. He is against software patents, which he believes compromises personal freedom.

His mobile device is a ‘rooted’ HTC Hero that he parallel imported from Australia. “Android phones are free and open source, but the carriers lock them down so they effectively prevent their users from gaining full access to the phones unless they achieve so-called root access, they root the phone,” he says.

“A lot of people are buying phones that come with a badly outdated version of Android, because the phone has been sitting in a warehouse for the past six months and software moves so quickly that six months is an eternity in the mobile environment.”

Instructions on how to “root a phone” are on the internet and there are videos on YouTube, but Lane says you need to know what you’re doing as some of these give out incorrect information and you could destroy your device.

He says there isn’t anything illegal about it, “it is just carriers don’t want you to [do it] because then they lose control. The bottom line is that, as with anything else, the technology wraps around the blockage.”

And for Lane that appears to be part of the appeal – his fundamental belief is that people should be able to do what they want with their own hardware and software, and not be bound by the rules of carriers and developers such as Microsoft and Apple.

Lane is an outspoken critic of Microsoft, which he describes as a monopoly, and which he believes eschews innovation in favour of profits. But Apple, what’s wrong with them?

“I admire Apple’s technical capabilities and their willingness to take a chance but they have the same corporate motives that Microsoft have, and ultimately I would never buy an Apple product. I’ve never bought an Apple product and I would not encourage others to do it. It is marginally better technologically speaking than anything Microsoft has ever done, however from the point of view of compromising your freedom to do with your own device what you want, they are just as bad as Microsoft, if not worse. Because at least Microsoft are inept, whereas Apple are actually not. I admire them, I respect them, but I don’t agree with their model.”

Fortunately, my iPad and iPhone were tucked away in my bag during our conversation.

* This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Christchurch IT scene. Tomorrow Computerworld talks to Jade Software. In the meantime, check out the details of the next Fry Up debate to be held in Christchurch on 1 March, the moot is: 'South Islanders will be the most innovative when it comes to fast fibre networks'.

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