Fear and loathing: is open source a developer's dream or business nightmare?

Are vendors of proprietary software spreading FUD about open source? Chris Bell investigates

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if you could email the author of the software you use to ask questions about it? Open source software users do that every day, and would have us believe their software is all the better for it.

While the “commercial” software vendors are busy spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) about open source, it might be said that the world of the open source software developer is one of fearlessness, confidence and certainty. Open source developers dispense with many of the constraints placed on proprietary software developers. There’s no need for them to develop elaborate licence key checkers; maintain multiple, “crippled” demonstration versions of software or develop nifty communications protocol tricks to prevent others from creating competing software products.

Most OSS projects are available for download at any time, regardless of their state of completion. This means interested users can test and improve the software and don’t have to wait for a vendor to release a new version that may or may not solve their particular problem. More importantly, open source software release cycles are driven by the developers, not by marketing.

Dave Lane is director, system administration, development, marketing and client relationship manager at Egressive, a Christchurch-based open source developer and bespoke software house.

For Lane, who came from a science background and who has a love for ethics and community spirit, the open source philosophy simply felt right. But, putting altruism aside for a moment, what’s in it for him? “The satisfaction of collaborating with a community of constructive, clever, generous people whom I greatly respect. My efforts combined with those of the open source community have allowed me to create a profitable business in keeping with my principles and ethics.”

Dan Randow is project director of OnlineGroups.Net, which enables groups of people to collaborate online using email and the web to hold conversations, share files and view group membership and other participants’ profiles. OnlineGroups.Net runs on its own open source collaboration technology, GroupServer. It develops open source software for commercial reasons, not out of benevolence, Randow says. “Naturally, we value goodwill in business relationships, like any vendor. We also enjoy being in the software business and working collaboratively with other companies. These things, however, don’t themselves put food on the table.”

Lane claims any competition in the open source community is good-natured and constructive, with individuals developing new ideas that are reviewed and refined by their peers. “Bad ideas die through lack of credibility and community support, good ones flourish. Success is determined by technical merit, usability and adherence to standards, not superficial marketing and strategic incompatibility aimed at locking in customers.”

Some of the contention between the closed and open industries pivots on whether open source really does lead to better code and thus more stable applications. Open source advocates such as Lane say the success of an open source project depends on energy, programming prowess and leadership within the community.

“The advantage of open source is that the incentives are different, to the benefit of both end-users and other developers. “There’s little incentive for exclusivity — avoiding the use of open standards-compliant file formats to achieve client lock-in and maximise profit — so open source applications typically fit in well with other standards-compliant software applications.”

Richard Waid is technical director of IOPEN Technologies, which is part of the Effusion Group, a Christchurch-based open community of design and software development companies founded on open standards ideals. “It’s common in the closed source world to work around a bug in the underlying library or framework for the language that’s being used, usually by either re-implementing, avoiding, or abusing the application programming interface,” says Waid. “With an open source framework, it’s much easier to simply fix the bug in the underlying framework.”

None of the developers Computerworld spoke to tried to claim that open source software is exclusively good — but, as Egressive’s Lane points out, if it’s no good, nobody’s forcing you to use it. However, he says, “Open source can most definitely produce as good or better quality software as proprietary alternatives, particularly for specialised software components and commodity software applications.”

The reason for that, says Lane, is simple: anyone with an interest can help to improve it. As users come to depend on a package, their interest in its stability grows, and the priorities of the developers, who are users themselves, shift from innovation to refinement. The developers’ credibility is on the line — it isn’t just a job, their professional reputation in the programming community is at stake.

A licence to save

We asked our developers how much money businesses could genuinely save by using open source software. Waid of IOPEN says the licences alone would represent an enormous cost difference.

“New Zealand, annually, spends significant amounts of money on imported software licences. It’s not difficult to come up with a figure of $100 million for the one major software vendor alone.”

Lane of Egressive, too, regards software as a net cost unless it’s correctly installed, with the buy-in of your staff, and you know how to integrate it into your existing business processes. He argues that a closed source, per-seat or per-CPU licensed product couldn’t possibly compete with a product that services one or 10,000 for the same zero-dollar price.

“Scalability almost always kills proprietary software due to its pricing model. For example, if a commercial office package costs $300 per installation versus zero dollars for OpenOffice, choosing OpenOffice saves only $300 for a single computer — not a huge incentive. But, across a large organisation like a city council, with say 1,000 computers, you’d save $300,000 per upgrade cycle.”

Where such savings are subsequently reinvested in sponsoring software developers to provide customisation, businesses can reap further benefits. Lane points to a home-grown example: Katipo Communications’ Koha library software, which is being used and improved worldwide. The original client, the Horowhenua Library Trust is benefiting at no cost from the global enhancements.

Country coding

Catalyst IT in Wellington has 55 staff, making it possibly NZ’s largest open source-focused company. Donald Christie, its founder and director, says the software services company has consistently grown in revenue, profit and staff. Open source has also enabled Catalyst to cost-effectively build up a facilities management service. It now hosts over 200 servers and a variety of mission-critical systems for some of the country’s largest organisations.

In 2002, InternetNZ began to implement a strategy of opening up .nz domain name registration to independent registrars, creating a market where previously a monopoly had existed.

Catalyst wrote the open source Shared Registry System (SRS) for InternetNZ. But, while the latter’s decision to release the SRS source code for the domain name registry under a GPL is considered something of a world-first, it was in keeping with InternetNZ’s mission of an “open and uncapturable” internet, says Nick Griffin, general manager of .nz Registry Services (NZRS). NZRS is responsible for the register of domain names and the operation of the SRS in the .nz domain name space. Griffin says that when defining the SRS system, InternetNZ stated a desire for the use and publishing of the source. After a year of operation, NZRS went through a process to assess the best manner in which to achieve this, and the result was the publishing of the code under the GPL.

Because the software was produced with open source release in mind from the beginning, OS tools were used throughout the development process.

“Although we’re not averse to the use of proprietary software if the situation warrants,” says InternetNZ’s technical analyst Nick Wallingford, “our philosophy leads us in the direction of open source if at all possible, knowing that it can make for a better application, as well.”

After running a successful pilot, Catalyst was awarded the development of the SRS, and the system was launched in October 2002. Christie says the decision protects the long-term investment InternetNZ made in the software and creates a very public escrow. “It did have an effect on the development, particularly on the way people wrote specifications, documentation and code they’d be happy to see released for public scrutiny. We believe that a greater amount of care and pride was taken in the application as a result.”

Wallingford says InternetNZ never expected a large number of people to take up its offer of highly specialised, if freely available code. “We’d feel great if some small registry or country did take it up as it is or added to it, but even if they don’t we can feel good that there will be people reading the code, taking the opportunity to learn from it and maybe reusing parts of it in their own work.”

While InternetNZ wasn’t expecting a huge response, there is a sense of hoping for some more active participation and improvements from the open source community. “Unfortunately, there haven’t been any contributions to the code from parties that have downloaded it,” Griffin says.

Help quash the FUD

New Zealand developers say there are many sources of misinformation around open source development and some of the sources have deep pockets. The half-truths might stem from propaganda, a lack of knowledge or from the media. Egressive’s Lane reckons it’s a combination of all three.

“The key players know that only a small proportion in the marketplace has enough knowledge to criticise their marketing assertions with any credibility. As a result, there’s a lot of room for them to distort the benefits of their products and the weaknesses of their competition because very few people, including some technology journalists, will take them to task. The truth always gets out eventually, and open source has the help of the internet to get the word out.”

Bill Gates’s comment about open source supporters being “new, modern-day sort of communists” calls into question whether the open source community is resilient enough to withstand the marketing muscle of the commercial giants. Not surprisingly, the local OSS community claims it’s precisely because the software monopoly has so much to lose if open source gains mainstream acceptability that it’s become so vocal.

Egressive’s Lane is particularly scathing. “Gates’s assertion, in addition to harking back to McCarthyism, demonstrates one of two things: that he understands neither communism or capitalism, or that he’s willing to make misleading, groundless and emotive statements to protect his interests.

“Most wouldn’t blame him for doing so, but here’s an image I find useful: big lumbering dinosaurs versus small, adaptable mammals. When the market is disrupted, as it has been by open source, I know where I’d invest my money.”

Waid of IOPEN agrees that, as the primary stakeholder in a huge, proprietary software company, Gates has a lot to lose.

“It’s ironic that he calls open source supporters communists because Microsoft actually has some open source projects of its own. I’m not referring to anything branded as ‘shared source’, but rather actually using open source licences.”

When it comes to choosing between open source and proprietary software, Randow of OnlineGroups.Net says ultimately it’s a case of horses for courses.

“Some open source software is better than its closed source equivalents, but the licence costs nothing. It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s worth considering seriously in certain cases.”

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