Open Source and the digital dilemma

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1 April 2005 | 0

There is one software company which, more than any other, takes an interest in what is being said and written about Open Source software. It was the very first such company to offer its co-operation when it heard we were carrying out a survey of attitudes to Open Source software among Irish IT professionals and it
made very sure that we had seen comments on the subject made by Minister for the Information Society Mary Hanafin at this year’s Irish Software Association Conference.

That company is of course Microsoft, which views the adoption of Open Source software with about as much enthusiasm as Muqtada Al Sadr would summon up for a full Irish breakfast: not only is the very idea contrary to their fundamental beliefs, but they also argue that partaking is not very good for you in the long run.

Fighting the rise of Open Source software has taken on a status similar to a jihad for Microsoft. Which is hardly surprising given that it makes nearly all of its revenues from the sale of software licenses. Open Source software companies on the other hand make little or no money from licences, preferring instead to charge for support, maintenance and ongoing development.

 

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At the crux is one of the great controversies of the digital age: how to safeguard intellectual property rights in an era in which the marginal cost of replicating and disseminating digital property quickly approaches zero. It is an issue on which the music industry is struggling to reach a consensus and on which the IT industry is increasingly divided.

One approach, favoured by many musicians in one instance and Open Source advocates in another, is to recognise that technology has made traditional enforcement methods inefficient or intolerable. Nowadays any teenager with an Internet connection can copy the oeuvre of the latest ‘popular beat combo’ into MP3 format and publish it on the Internet, or anybody with a CD burner can
make copies of the latest business software applications and distribute them to whomever they wish. That is if they don’t just dump the code on a server and let their colleagues download and install it at their leisure.

The argument goes: is it really worth while in this context to demand more and more heavy handed rights of search and retrieval to inspect the contents of anybody and everybody’s computers to ensure that they can account for every soundbite and software package? Would we not be better off if we just accepted
the new reality and devised new models of conducting business that benefit both ourselves and our customers?

The alternative approach, favoured by the likes of Microsoft in one instance and the large record companies in the other, is to insist on legal vindication of property rights no matter what the cost. Such an approach relies heavily on a propaganda effort to ‘educate’ customers as to the obligations put on them by the small print in the software agreements that they probably haven’t read. (see page
35). The education program must also highlight why retaining traditional business models is beneficial to all in the long run.

With this in mind it is easy to see why Microsoft welcomed Minister Hanafin’s comments on Open Source software. Talking about the government’s approach to exploiting technology in the delivery of its own services, she said: ‘The assessment of value must..take full account of the totality of costs likely to arise. Confidence in the performance of software may be a relevant consideration. It is relevant to bear in mind that Open Source is open to amendment and reconfiguration, resulting in different flavours of what was originally the same software. These are considerations which must be evaluated and may point to a situation where the long-term costs associated with Open Source may outweigh the short-term benefits.’

Which is a pretty pithy summary of the key arguments put forward by Microsoft, and other software companies, when asked to defend their products against Open Source competitors. However the Minister’s comments fall a long way short of a ringing endorsement of proprietary licensed software and ask only that government departments and their agencies evaluate their options carefully
before deciding how to implement IT strategies.

Sifting through the data obtained from our survey sheds an interesting light on how far Open Source software has gained acceptance among the public sector, including Government departments and their agencies, state and semi-state
bodies, local government, health and education.

Although respondents’ identities must remain anonymous we found that the split between those that used Open Source and those that didn’t in the public sector reflected the figures of the industry at large: of the 55 organisations we identified in that sector 33 make some use of Open Source and 22 don’t, a neat 60-40 split.

Open Source is widely used in education: 17 third-level institutes use it to some degree or other; only two said they didn’t. By contrast, the area of local government is completely Open Source averse: of the five town and city councils who answered the survey, not a single one said they were using Open Source
software.

Three government departments replied to the survey: two use Open Source software; one doesn’t. Government agencies were split fairly neatly on the issue: six of them do use Open Source; eight of them don’t.

Of the large state and semi-state enterprises that responded we found that six do use Open Source; two don’t and the head of IT of a ninth seems to be unaware of the fact that his organisation does because he says it doesn’t whereas one of his subordinates answered to the contrary! It is a trait of Open Source software that it often sneaks into organisations ‘unauthorised’ by senior personnel who don’t know what’s there if they haven’t signed a budget for it.

Time will tell whether the argument over ‘total cost of ownership’ of Open Source systems will be a relevant one. As our survey shows, the majority of Open Source deployments are in the area of ‘infrastructure’ software: operating systems, Web servers and databases. Open Source enterprise applications have some way to go before they can convince IT departments of their suitability, but we know that such applications are being built and brought to market as we write.

The tide of Open Source software is rising. Its opponents are going to have to either swim with it, or channel it into areas where they no longer wish to compete. But there’s no turning it back.

08/06/04

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