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Open source software: building profitable solutions for people

In the computer software market there is a movement that is gaining tremendous momentum throughout the world. It promises a way out of the trap that has been snaring businesses and consumers. A trap that forces them to pay for a dizzying collection of services that they are unable to modify, and probably don’t want. Services that:

Tie customers in to never-ending upgrade costs
Restrict customers to the shackles of their licenses (no copies made and so on)
Have created a lost generation of information (try opening a WordPerfect file now)
Only allow collaboration with other users of that service
Contain so much bloated code as to cripple computers over three years old
Are more susceptible to attack
Cause hardware to break down much faster than expected

There is a bit of history to this. Since the early 1980’s the development of licenses for software code saw businesses such as Apple, and then Microsoft, rising. They sold the use of the code for big profits, which encouraged swathes of developers to follow suit, often providing lousy software loaded with bugs to be bought by unsuspecting consumers.

In the late 1990’s the earlier, more scientific ethic of open source software (OSS) to develop services that anyone could improve began to gain some ground. Rather than having the profit motive steering their business, the open source movement was made of individuals seeking to prove their coding ability. Having ‘I developed professional software which is used by three million people’ on your CV is a pretty good way to get a paid position.

Rather than using licenses that enforced strict copyright, preventing the spread of the service unless it was paid for, the open source movement opted for ‘copyleft’, whereby the consumer had any such restrictions removed (or ‘all rights reversed’), save to preserve the copyleft freedom in any future distributions.

The Linux operating system began to issue a challenge to Windows, and the Mozilla Foundation opened its Netscape Navigator code up for development into the popular Firefox browser. Budding developers all over the world began pitting their minds against the well-paid proprietary companies. Apache soon become the webserver of choice. WordPress, the best blogging software. OpenOffice now offers a comparable suite of programs to MS Office. Thunderbird, apart from the cool name, does almost everything Outlook can, and some things it can’t. Linux continued to thrive, and now a version of it called Ubuntu provides the sort of simplicity and functionality Vista offers without the DRM (digital rights management) drawbacks.

But it is not just the developers that are benefiting from OSS. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation has made Google Firefox’s default search engine, earning a large but undisclosed sum to “financially support and cultivate competitive, viable community innovation.” Other companies, such as Ubuntu’s Canonical, profit by offering organizations support to implement OSS. Other services, such as organizational specific customization, offering insurance against damage or loss from use of an OSS application, hosting the software (similar to www.wordpress.com) or charging for the software to be embedded into a commercial application. Read more about these in John Newton’s ‘Open Source Business Models’ article.

Companies that started using Open Source early on have reaped big benefits. Take PayPal, the world’s most widely used payment system, which uses Linux. Scott Thompson, it’s technology director, states:

“When you’re buying lots of Big Iron [computer hardware], as I did in other places I’ve worked, your upgrade path is US$2 million, US$3 million at a clip. You just had to buy big chunks of stuff to scale,” he says. “Here at PayPal, our upgrade path is 10 US$1,000 no-name servers, slapped into the mid-tier of the platform. And we just keep scaling it that way. It’s unbelievably cost effective.”

And those benefits get passed on to the consumers and PayPal shareholders. Consumers that can win by adopting the OSS model to allow free access to software, reduce vulnerabilities, customize their software however they can, collaborate with open standards, lengthen the life of their hardware and reduce their need to purchase yet more.

I hope I’ve been able to show here how OSS helps developers to further their careers, companies to make profits and consumers to benefit in a virtuous and upward spiraling circle. Look out for articles in future on the Information Handyman on the WordPress blogging software, the Ubuntu operating system, and the Alfresco electronic content management system.

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