Open source is still fighting against fear

It has been almost sixteen years since Linux version 0.01 was released. Since then, the open source OS – and many other open source products – have proven themselves to be invaluable productivity tools and platforms. In spite of its maturity and benefits – such as low acquisition costs and the ability to customize solutions – open source software is still trying to win over the hearts and minds of IT leaders as a viable alternative to commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS).
The widely touted gains made by open source solutions such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, JBoss, Firefox and Sendmail has little impact on its uptake, and, to date, adoption remains tepid at best. Info-Tech Research Group’s recent survey of over 1,900 IT professionals tells the tale of a software licensing model and delivery paradigm that is slowly, if painfully, gaining acceptance.

Good Enough for the Internet But…

This slow adoption is a reflection of the ambivalence decision makers have towards open source software. IT leaders are drawn to the idea of the continuous innovation, the availability of multiple free sources, and the low implementation cost open source provides. At the same time, these IT leaders worry about the copyright, security, and stability issues that plague some open source software products.

Open source software such as BIND, LDAP, and sendmail facilitate domain management, security management and communication for millions of users. Yet despite the ubiquity, stability and robustness of these solutions, the results of our survey show that many IT managers still consider open source unsuitable for their environments. There are two reasons for this attitude:

1. Commercial applications are more mature and feature-rich. They also command greater mind share than their open source cousins.
2. The open source movement lacks the marketing muscle available to commercial software vendors.

Open source software has long been the domain of operating systems, application development tools and network connectivity software. Their maturity in these areas is unquestioned. However, open source vendors are trying to make headway into the enterprise with business intelligence, customer relationship management and Web content management solutions.

These open source enterprise solutions typically implement the highly commoditized features and functions of the enterprise application and are usually short on innovative techniques.

As a result, IT professionals in mid-sized and large enterprises who are looking for an enterprise solution will usually find the open source offerings lag behind their closed source counterparts by at least five years.

This explains why companies with more than 500 employees are more bearish on open source than smaller organizations. More than 30 per cent of Canadian companies with more than 500 employees disagree or strongly disagree with the statement, “Open source software delivers the best value.” In companies with less than 100 employees, just 10 per cent of companies disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Other open source shortcomings are a lack of marketing muscle and the inherent tech-centric culture that dominates many open source projects. Without the marketing savvy to gloss over the warts of some open source solutions, the weaknesses in the software are fully exposed and derided by their better-funded commercial software competitors.

The language used by the open source community is another roadblock to mainstream adoption. It consistently uses “geek-speak” like “unstable” to describe the pre-alpha, alpha and in some cases beta versions of its software. Open source vendors are shooting themselves in the foot by using these negative words to describe their product.

In fact, some have even gone so far as to suggest that if open source suppliers were responsible for marketing sushi, they’d sell it as “cold, dead fish.” Poor choice of marketing lingo also causes risk-averse IT professionals to be wary of open source. This fact is borne out by our research. Less than 25 per cent of Canadian respondents in companies with more than 500 employees see open source as the best approach for any type of technology. In the U.S., this number is higher: Less than 40 per cent of firms with over 500 employees see open source as the best approach.

Open source has made great headway in the market, and is gaining converts, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a mainstream alternative. Until open source vendors catch up with their commercial counterparts in terms of features and marketing, open source software will face an uphill battle against fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Comment: [email protected]

Curtis Gittens is a senior analyst at Info-Tech Research. Shane Schick will return on Tuesday.

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