Fresh Blurbs

Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS)

Julie Inlow of the University of Maryland has recently interviewed me about FOSS, for her research. I decided to publish this interview in the hope that somebody else may find it interesting, as well. I strongly believe in the open-source. If this posting helps at least one person to consider FOSS more seriosuly, I will feel mission is accomplished.

Why is open source important to you? AKA - why do you care about FOSS?

For me the benefits of FOSS have three equally important facets: business, technological and social.

At the business side, employing FOSS allows organizations to avoid vendor lock-in. Using FOSS, managers substantially decrease dependencies on third parties, and mitigate a sizable risk. Unfortunately, not many executives understand a simple reality - when you build your technology on top of proprietary components you inherently tie project's future to what happens in the vendor companies.

Managers usually comfort themselves with the thought that large vendors like IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and others are “reliable�. True as it may be, that does not matter! In reality, the interests of clients and vendors are not aligned. It is wrong to assume that all decisions made by a vendor will be favorable for a client. Dependency on a vendor is a risk. Whether this risk will materialize or not is a matter of a chance but gambling is better left for a weekend in Las-Vegas.

Technological benefits of FOSS include: flexibility, control and transparency. The source codes of FOSS programs are available for viewing and modification. Theoretically, there are no limits in using a FOSS component. An important consequence of the transparency is that often mature FOSS products are more bug-free than their proprietary alternatives. The reason is simple: more eyeballs looking at the source code, less the chance for a bug to slip through.

Another important impact of FOSS is the social one. Free and open-source model brings people together that would have little chance to work together, otherwise. In what other model does a young programmer from a “third-world� country get a chance to be a peer to a seasoned professional from, say, IBM? FOSS projects give unprecedented opportunities to talented people all over the world, no matter where they are and what their native language is.

I think we are only starting to understand just how revolutionary the social impact of FOSS is.

When did you become interested?

I have been interested in FOSS for a long time, now but probably it became a much larger part of my professional life when I joined the World Bank in 2001. I was lucky to work with a group there that was one of the first, in the Bank, to champion the usage and development of the FOSS software.

What roles have you played / actions taken in the open source community? In what activities have you participated?

I have helped organizations adopt FOSS software, migrate to FOSS software. I have contributed to and participated in several FOSS projects.

From your perspective, what primary factors influence or discourage diffusion and adoption?

It is a very complex subject that is hard to answer in several sentences. If I had to name just several of the reasons I would say: lack of knowledge and understanding amongst the decision-making managers, lack of professional support for the FOSS components (there has been significant progress in this regard, lately, though), lack of legislature promoting FOSS as a public good, tremendous amount of lobbing and blocking from large proprietary vendors who see FOSS as a threat to their businesses.

In the future, what role do you see FOSS playing? In private sector? In the public sector? In the US? Abroad? Which countries?

I think, just like any other strategic decision, adopting FOSS is a business decision. We just discussed what could be incentives for business managers to go FOSS way. These incentives are not only valid in certain geographical location or industry segments. Where will people be smart enough to not ignore FOSS and at least seriously consider it? I don’t know. I hope – everywhere, eventually.

As far as the development of FOSS products goes, I firmly believe that FOSS can be a viable business model. Don't get me wrong, not all software can or may be FOSS, but FOSS products can definitely generate revenue, just as well as their proprietary counterparts do. There are numerous examples of successful FOSS companies so I do not see a reason why others should not try when appropriate.

Do you think government should formally encourage FOSS development via policy vehicles or let market forces drive development?

I do think that governments must encourage FOSS. As a matter of fact, there are governments that already do it. Governments of Brazil and Bavaria are good examples.

I think the real problem is in the minds of the vendors who are resistant and/or unable to adapt and start thinking the new way. They are so used to capitalizing on patents and restrictive licenses that are unable to think outside of that tiny box. They don’t notice that it is not the only and always the best way profits can be generated. If you think how ridiculous some patents are, you will not be too surprised that there are people who request software patents to be abolished entirely.

I am far from thinking that all software must be FOSS, but FOSS and proprietary software must be put at equal terms. Once that is done, market forces will determine what is the best model for each particular case.

I think, this is one of the areas where governments can step up. Old legislature related to intellectual property rights and patents must be changed. It must be brought in consistency with the new reality.

comments powered by Disqus