Sunday, 22 March 2015

Open source software: a helping hand for growth

Open source software is one of the things that occasionally gets entangled in the webs of ideology, politics and corporate marketing talk. However, open source software is a rather simple idea: Develop something, using an open, collaborative approach if possible, make it available to the public as a product, together with its source code and let them use it as they please. That simple.

Does this development model even make sense? Why would anybody do this? How can open source development pay their bills and, more importantly, who provides support to open source software users?

'Open source water' by Niels Heidenreich
under a CC license (photo cropped)
Let 's start with the observation that currently available open source software covers a wide variety of applications. Even, in some sectors, it has been long established as a "tool of choice" amongst professionals. Open source applications can be found in infrastructure software, such as webservers (e.g., Apache), databases (e.g., MySQL, Firebird, MariaDB, etc.), distributed computing software (e.g., Hadoop), office suites (e.g., LibreOffice, OpenOffice), browsers (e.g., Mozilla Firefox), desktop publishing software (e.g., Scribus), image manipulation software (e.g., GIMP, RAWTherapee), statistics software (e.g., PSPP, R), mathematics software (e.g., Octave), animation software (e.g., Blender), programming languages (e.g., PERL, PHP, Python, Scala), operating systems (e.g., the various Linux distributions, FreeBSD), etc. In fact, there are Linux distributions that include all those applications most users would need in open source software only.

So, apparently open source software is both common and of wide practical use. But why? Do people develop open source software solely following a certain ideology?

Some people, maybe. But developing open source software makes sense. Because of its open nature, open source software is more likely to be developed around standards or help develop or advance such standards. It is more likely to pursue interoperability. It is more likely to suit the needs of wide variety of users, both in terms of requirements from the application itself but also in terms of the minimum needed infrastructure to run in. Code developed in such projects that have achieved critical mass is of quality no inferior to commercial equivalents with the possible extra bonus of transparency and scrutiny in code changes.

It is quite common for companies to support, in various ways, the development of open source software. In some cases, even if that software is competing in the same market as their commercial products. For instance, Google has been financing the Mozilla Foundation despite the fact that Google also maintains Chrome, its own browser proposal. While this case is a particular one, there are plenty of other examples involving big software actors such as Microsoft or Oracle. For the commercial companies, their participation in the development of open source software is a way to remain competitive by getting on board - through that development process, new ideas, influencing developing in standards, experimenting and collaborating - even with competitors.

The various open source software items can provide flexible solutions at a low cost (or at no cost) to most users, regardless of whether they are corporations, public bodies or individuals. Nowadays, such software is far from crude. On the contrary, major open source software titles tend to be polished, user-friendly, with extensive documentation and, typically, a community support system. In that way, the provide IT means and tools allowing end users to focus on the things they really want.

Of course, open source software can have its own business model. There are several businesses that have been built around such software. Their revenue streams typically include premium software support plans, custom setup or further software development, user training on top of more "low profile" income routes, such as donations from the public or advertising revenue. In some cases, business ecosystems have been created around open source applications.

A study published in 2007 supported that investment in free and open source software can benefit, overall, the economy, reducing costs for software, encouraging business growth and, through the latter, helping improve employment rates.

How does this all add up?

Open source software is a great thing for innovation (that and the open data movement :). And, currently, it can provide attractive solutions to a number of practical applications. I 'm not sure whether it is a trend or something that will persist. It is certainly not for all. There are users and usage scenarios where operating with open source software is not an easy option. For sure, however, it provides us an alternative that needs to be thoroughly explored and revisited, from time to time. And, if possible, supported.

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