One of my graduate student teams recently pitched me on the virtues of
open source software.
The leader of that pack works for a not-for-profit corporation, so you
know what his bias was. The rest of them work for companies that exist
for profit — and you probably can guess what their biases were.
We analyzed some open source alternatives to Microsoft Office, Siebel
Systems CRM and other proprietary applications and even some data base
management software. We concluded that while they were all impressive,
they were still not quite the real thing. Nor, we concluded, would they
offer the cost savings that everyone had been lobbied to expect.
I then took the analysis to our CIO Advisory Council, 25 or so CIOs from
the greater Philadelphia area, and asked them straight up, What are you
doing about open source software in your companies?” Note that the
companies in the room included Rohm and Haas, Unisys, Johnson & Johnson,
Sunoco, Wawa, Vanguard, Aramark, Sungard, The Philadelphia Stock
Exchange, Cigna, and Wyeth-Ayerst, among other prominent companies. My
back-of-the-envelope calculation indicated the people taking that ad hoc
survey spent about $5 billion a year on technology — surely they’d be
interested in something that might save them some serious money.
What do you think that they said?
Nearly all of them were anything but enthusiastic about open source
software — aside from the use of ”not on my desktop” Linux and Apache.
Several of them indicated the cost savings they might enjoy from
migration would be eaten alive by the migration cost itself, not to
mention the hassle and weirdo factors. (Many of the CIOs were far more
concerned about cell phone bills than the cost of Microsoft Office
Sun Microsystems and Google recently announced a partnership whereby
Google would distribute Sun’s software, including its competitor, to
Microsoft Office, OpenOffice. If you look at the list of open source
alternatives to the proprietary systems that we buy, deploy and support,
the list is getting longer and longer — and the features richer and
The not-for-profit and for-profit open source support community also is
getting much more sophisticated and professional. More importantly, many
of the largest technology vendors long ago embraced open source software.
So are we there yet?
We’re getting closer. And it’s not the features and compatibility of open
source software that are getting us there, though it certainly helps the
open source cause. It’s the structure and mechanics of the software
industry that’s making open source more attractive to increasing numbers
of small, medium and even large companies.
Yes, I know I already said that my CIO Advisory Council rejected open
source software and that my graduate students made a less-than-convincing
case against the proprietary software giants. But there are some trends
that bear very close watching over the next few years — trends that
might very well change their minds.
The first trend regards pricing.
At some point, technology managers are going to resist the sheer cost of
buying — and maintaining — enterprise software. While I realize that
there are always ‘deals’ out there, enterprise software is incredibly
expensive. And there are human factors. Experts out there are telling us
over and over again that most users barely use 10 percent of the features
embedded in large software suites. And then there’s the shelfware issue.
The second trend is hosting.
Many companies are looking seriously at renting software instead of
buying, deploying and supporting complex applications. As the
hosting/renting trend continues, companies will revisit how they spend
their technology dollars in some creative ways. The evolution of thin
client architectures is part of this trend.
Third, the new software architectures based largely on Web Services
standards will enable whole new service-oriented and event-driven
architectures that will challenge traditional software distribution and
pricing models. (This is part of the Sun/Google long-term strategy.)
These three trends will place tremendous pressure on the large
proprietary software vendors to re-think their pricing strategies. If
they fail to adjust their prices, more and more companies will defect to
alternative software acquisition and support approaches. Some will rent,
some will move toward new architectures, and some will strongly consider
open source alternatives.
This all will play out over the next three to five years — not in a
decade or two. The major software vendors can influence the direction all
this takes, but the only way they can guarantee market share is to reduce
their profits. Regardless of how pro-active the major vendors become, the
three pressure points described above will accelerate changes in how
software is designed, acquired, distributed, supported and priced.
Does this mean open source software will become more popular over time?
It depends on how the software market shakes out. Here are some scenarios
that will influence the adoption of open source software:
their pricing policies, then more and more companies will look to open
and the large proprietary software vendors fail to radically alter their
pricing policies, the adoption of open source software will dramatically
toward hosting and renting fail to continue and the large proprietary
software vendors fail to radically alter their pricing policies, the
adoption of open source could become as popular, if not more so, than
proprietary software, and
renting/hosting, and the new architectures which could be based on open
source applications and open source components.
One thing is for sure… The open source movement is gaining momentum and
serious technology managers are beginning to rethink how they might
participate in the open source movement. So what would you say if I
asked you straight up, Wwhat are you doing about open source software in