In business and especially with technology you get what you pay for, right? Well, maybe not, because some of the best software available is free. Open Source and Free Software are hardly new movements but they are gaining new momentum, in light of high profile computer applications like Mozilla's FireFox which has already been downloaded for free over 100 million times since its release at the end of November.
Notable names from the Open Source and Free Software movement you may know in addition to the Firefox web browser are the Linux operating system and the Apache web server. Linux and Apache gained their fame and made some people very rich during the Internet boom, but those programs have always been free for anyone to download and use legally. That's just the tip of the iceberg where free software is concerned. These programs run the gamut from esoteric niche applications like GRASS in the GIS field to broad appeal programs like OpenOffice.org, a productivity suite that mirrors most of the functions of Microsoft Office, but is free to download for Windows, Linux and Macintosh. The Internet side of Open Source is even more exciting than the desktop applications. The Apache web server and enterprise class databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL make deploying sophisticated web applications cheap and easy. Why pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for content management when there are a dozen or more content management programs available for free? The same holds true for e-commerce, customer service, billing and project management, just to name a few software categories. That means that small businesses can act like large businesses and put world class web services to work to make up for lack of manpower or capital. You only need to find the tools that fit your business needs.
Open Source applications are easy to find, if you know how to look for them. SourceForge.net is home to a large number of Open Source projects. For free images, sounds and movie clips, you can search creativecommons.org. But you can just as easily search for Open Source projects at Google.com. Just type “open source” with your specific software search (e.g. open source graphics) to get a list of software projects. In fact, it's Google's support for Open Source that seems to be the catalyst behind the recently leaked Microsoft memos.
Open Source is a different philosophy in software development. It grew out of the Free Software movement whose slogan is “Free as in Freedom.” Both of these movements believe that end users should have the right to see the programming code (source code) that makes software work. With the program and the source code, users are free to update, fix, or alter the software to their specific needs. A number of licensing agreements, most notably the Gnu Public License (GPL), have been devised to assure that creators can still own their software while distributing it freely (and often free of charge).
There is no single funding model for Open Source software but the software is usually developed by a community of programmers, not a corporation. The people who contribute the most value (time and quality of code generated) get the most control over the direction of the project. It is the model of democracy on a global scale.
Corporations often fund Open Source projects. IBM contributes engineers and resources to both the Apache web server and the Eclipse development framework. Apple Computer co-founded the Open Darwin Foundation which develops the Darwin operating system. Darwin is the BSD Unix operating system that Apple built its own OSX operating system upon. AOL which founded the Netscape Foundation provided the core code for Mozilla.org which developed the Mozilla, Camino and Firefox browsers. FireFox, which is gaining on Internet Explorer at an impressive rate, has captured just under 10% of the browser market in the last year making it the second most used web browser worldwide.
The result of all of this free software is a leveling of the playing field for hardware and software developers and great free software for end users like us. The recently leaked memos from Microsoft indicate that Google's support of Open Source software is a major threat. After rejecting the legitimacy of the Open Source development model, Microsoft will now be adding support for OpenOffice.org file formats to its own Office product. Also as I was writing this article, Microsoft also has agreed to use the Open Source designed orange logo for RSS (Really Simple Syndication) in future releases of their Internet applications. It also looks as if the standard for the Open Doc file format will come from the Open Source community instead of the proposal from Microsoft.
I can't blame Microsoft for their concern, since a number of governments around the world have already considered legislating the use of Open Source software for their government offices, unless there are no Open Source solutions that fit a specific need. With over a billion consumers in China alone, these initiatives stand to bolster the Open Source movement and change the software landscape for all of us.
The best part is that Total Cost of Operation (TCO) of most Open Source products is the same or lower than commercial products. Since flaws in the software are openly discussed, they are usually patched quickly. With the world as your development team, and the source code available for viewing, anyone who can spot and repair a flaw, is welcome (and encouraged) to do so. The insulated environment of most software companies doesn't allow for that kind of reaction time or coordination.
Open Source gives you software that you want, and the updates as they become available at no charge. Online manuals are available in multiple languages. Many of those manuals also make it possible for users to comment to the developers and correct any mistakes or omissions found.
Since most of us work in common file formats that are easily exchanged between computers, the migration to Open Source is mostly painless. If you aren't taking advantage of web based applications for your business because you thought the cost was too high, you should reconsider. If the solution you want isn't available today, keep watching for the right project because developers value testers as well as programmers and your feedback could be the key to getting the software you want instead of just what you can buy.