Open source software: what is it?

Ruben van Wendel de Joode

Open source is gaining popularity. Open source is appearing increasingly in the news and also big organisations tend to make the switch-over to an open source software packet more often. This kind of popularity is linked partly to the laws and rules that try to stimulate the use of open source software. The Netherlands has the action plan ‘Nederland Open in Verbinding’ (NOiV) wherein is stated that governments, authorities and other organizations (like care, education and social security) need to choose for open source by contracts when the software is equally suitable. But what is open source actually? Why does open source software gain popularity and why do governments stimulate the use of open source software? I will focus on these questions in this article.

What is open source?
First of all, the term ‘open source’ refers to a certain type of software, like popular software programs such as Linux, Apache and the Dutch MMBase. The thing that makes open source software (OSS) special is the license that the software is published with. The license states that the source code, the most readable part of software for people, needs to be made available to (end) users.

A lot of times OSS is still seen as not being commercially interesting. The source code is freely available and companies can thus not make any profits by selling the software. Practise shows us other results. OSS is commercially speaking very interesting, but the business model is different. Companies buy related services. They make money by selling hardware, the implementation of software and/or the management of the software.

Thanks to the availableness of the source code a fascinating development model has risen into being. Communities of volunteers, students, professionals and companies work together in order to improve the software, write books and translate software.

Benefits
It is often stated that OSS would have many benefits compared to other kinds of software. The software would be more reliable and safer. And errors would be fixed faster with OSS. But these benefits are not real. There are many OSS’s that are very unreliable and unsafe. I will state the four benefits that are actually true below.

A first benefit is the cost benefit, in particular the absence of license costs. Of course license costs are only a part of the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), but the absence of license costs can mean a big cost advantage for many organizations.

A second important benefit of OSS is supplier’s independency. The fact that the source code is accessible, results in organizations being less dependent on the supplier that has implemented the software. A user that knows the source code can ask another organization than the original supplier to adjust or manage the software. Users can even adjust the software themselves if they have the knowledge.

The third and fourth benefit is especially relevant for governments and authorities. The third benefit is that OSS leads to a better spending of public money and re-use, because the software is available for everyone after it’s developed. Apart from this an increasing number of people believe that creative things, like software, should be made available so that others can develop them further. This is possible with an open source license.

A fourth important benefit is a macro-economical one. OSS stimulates local entrepreneurship and innovation. Smaller companies can for instance offer services and develop new products on the basis of OSS. OSS also creates a level playing field: a new market wherein companies have about the same chances because they all have access to the source code of the software.

Risks and disadvantages
Apart from benefits OSS also knows potential risks and disadvantages. One of the risks we encounter in organizations is the lack of knowledge and experience with OSS in a users and ICT environment. This lack is one of the reasons why purchasing OSS is often not seen as an actual option. If the software is then bought, chances are that there will be a lot of resistance. People don’t know enough about OSS and they are scared that implementing the software will lead to big chances in the work method. This is actually an organizational problem.

Another risk is connecting the software to new businesslike ICT developments. OSS is often not that fast in adopting ICT trends that have come into being in the business field. OSS lags behind there where virtualisation is concerned, there is a limited choice of open source ERP systems and only a limited number of ESB systems are available in open source.

Other risks are also mentioned. One of them would be that OSS does not have the possibility to get a service contract and that one would be dependent on a community to solve errors. These risks are not true. Nowadays there are enough suppliers that offer OSS and that organizations can buy a service contract from. They can also be asked to fix software problems.

Contracts: there really is a difference
With contracts OSS is really different. The fact that OSS do not require license costs results in the fact that some standard requirements and wishes don’t count and sometimes even exclude OSS. The absence of license costs for instance means that OSS suppliers have not received a lot of profits by selling licenses. The popularity of the software is difficult to assess by the number of sold licenses.

Apart from this OSS also asks for a different business model and should thus be looked at differently than at software where the payment of license costs is required.

Apart from this important difference concerning license costs there are not a lot of inherent differences between OSS and closed software. Because of this OSS asks for little extra attention when talking about contracts.

Author
Ruben van Wendel de Joode (Twynstra Gudde, Netherlands,www.twynstragudde.nl/opensource).

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