Author: Yogi Schulz

The rapid and widespread adoption of the LINUX operating system and the Apache web server have raised the profile of the open source model for software development and licensing. Recent product and service announcements from major hardware vendors including HP, IBM and Sun have raised the visibility and credibility of the open source model.

This growing momentum is causing many organisations to re-think their assumptions and biases about open source software. Until very recently, most large organisations regarded the open source movement with acute scepticism. The lack of structure, the almost total informality and the seeming absence of accountability of open software development conjured up visions of not-ready-for-prime time software, poor product stability, orphaned systems and unsupported products. No CIO, who aspires to a more burnished image, wants to risk running software produced in unknown locations by unknown individuals.

Suddenly, both the CIO and management have been caught off guard by discovering, well after the fact, that their high-profile web initiatives rely critically on LINUX and Apache software that the techies introduced out of personal curiosity and interest. This surprise has awakened keen interest in the differences between the proprietary source and the open source model.

Proprietary Source

Most software in the world is developed and acquired under the proprietary source model. Under this model, consumers license only the software objects with quite restrictive conditions. Typically, consumers pay substantial sums for the license. The software developer holds the only copy of the source code. It’s carefully guarded under tight security. A large portion of proprietary source software is valued in the millions or even billions on software vendor balance sheets.

This category of software includes many well-known products like Microsoft Office, the games we license for our children and the software we use at work including Great Plains, Oracle Applications, PeopleSoft and SAP.

The consumer is not able to modify the software even if he or she wanted to. Generally consumers of proprietary software don’t want to. The motivators in signing the license include outsourcing software development and taking advantage of the technical support we expect the software vendor to offer.

From the billions that are spent on software licenses each year, it’s clear that the proprietary source model is a huge success for vendors and consumers alike.

Open Source

A newer and radically different model for software development is the open source model. Using this model, consumers license the source code under quite liberal conditions for only a nominal distribution fee. Every consumer holds a copy of the source code and it’s not shown as an asset on anyone’s balance sheet.

In addition to LINUX and Apache, this category of software includes Netscape Navigator, Star Office from Sun and many scarcely known products including ERP applications and databases.

Consumers are encouraged to review and revise the source code as desired. There is no formal technical support with an 800 number and a problem ticket management process. Instead, open source is supported quite differently through a community of consumers that monitors postings to a newsgroup where problems, suggested enhancements and operational experiences are shared. Effective participation in the community does require a high level of understanding and experience with the software in question.

In the open source community, there is no obligation to respond to any newsgroup posting. However, many postings receive speedy and useful responses.

The adherents of the open source model believe this community of consumers develops product features and solves technical problems faster than the proprietary source model. This boast is based on the fact that the number of individuals who actively participate in the community of consumers far exceeds the development staff assigned to large proprietary source products.

What’s Ahead

I expect the open source movement to continue to gain strength. Firstly, the super low price is hugely appealing to many organisations. Open source appears to be one of those rare situations where you really do receive much more than you pay for. Secondly, many in the software industry are chafing under the dominance of Microsoft and see the open source movement as a way to clip Microsoft’s wings a bit. Thirdly, the techies are experiencing considerable pride of craftsmanship in the quality software that they are producing collaboratively.


More and more software consumers are finding the benefits of open source software appealing. Should you be taking the plunge to open source?