Open source of conflict

One of the only things that three software professionals could agree on Monday was that open source and proprietary software will have to learn to coexist.

At the “”Open Source and Free Software: Concepts, Controversies and Solutions”” conference hosted by the University of Toronto, speakers including

Microsoft, ActiveState and the Linux Professional Institute presented very different points of view on the open source business model.

“”My wife tells me I’m not the brightest bulb in the marquee for going to open source conferences as the Microsoft guy,”” said Jason Matusow, shared source initiative manager at Microsoft Corp.

Matusow said there is definitely a competitive schism between products that are considered open source and those produced by Microsoft — adding that Microsoft is hardly unique in that regard. However, he said, there has always been a mixture between software that comes from academic and research communities and that which comes from vendors.

“”Linux today is primarily growing because of the (support) of very large corporations,”” he said, citing not only pure-play Linux companies like Red Hat, but also the likes of IBM and HP.

Companies like SAP have made certain portions of their code open source in order to benefit from the developer community and defray their own develop costs. “”It’s not a question of being evil or being Machiavellian,”” he said, it’s a way of discovering how open source affects your business.

There are portions of Microsoft’s Windows code that are available to developers, but in a read-only mode. Matusow said that the vast majority of IT departments don’t need or even want to modify source code. “”The use of the word ‘proprietary’ as a pejorative term is a little bit silly,”” he added.

Evan Liebovitch, president of the Linux Professional Institute based in Brampton, Ont., argued that the lack of proprietary strictures around open source is what has allowed it to flourish.

Linux is an international phenomenon, he said, with distributions like Mandrake (from France), Red Hat (U.S.) and SuSE (originally German, now part of Salt Lake City, Utah-based Novell). He said that because there are numerous open source versions of word processing and office productivity software available, there is more opportunity for advancement in the field.

Liebovitch broadly described the phenomenon as “”the spirit of co-opetition”” in which open source-based vendors are competing in the marketplace but playing on a level field.

He attempted to deflate the argument that Linux-run software is ultimately more expensive than its proprietary counterparts due to lack of proper support mechanisms. It may not be any cheaper, he said, but customers and users are gravitating towards it for a reason.

“”Barriers to change are less in the open source world than they are in the closed source world, he said. “”Interoperability must mean more than single cross-licensing agreements.””

These differences between open source and proprietary systems are lost on some customers, according to ActiveState’s chief technologist David Ascher. Vancouver-based ActiveState was bought by U.K. anti-virus firm Sophos last September.

Business managers that are behind software purchasing decisions generally fall into three categories, he said: they don’t understand open source and even fear it, they think it’s all free or they understand it and use if effectively in their organizations.

ActiveState uses common languages like Python and PERL on which to base its software, but does not consider itself an open source company. “”I haven’t found any pure open source business models that have survived,”” said Ascher.

Much of open source software is “”designed by geeks with geek principles in mind,”” said Ascher. It’s difficult to use, not accessible to novices, and doesn’t always work well cross-platform.

Ascher said his company is aiming for a middle ground that takes the best of open source and combines it with more of a user-friendly interface. “”Our software is more like iTunes than xterm,”” he said.

The Open Source and Free Software conference continues until Tuesday.

— Illustration by Robert Carter

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