Why open source has always deserved a census

openlogic.jpgEver since we learned that the Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft doesn’t take into account open source software when it comes up with its annual piracy statistics, we stopped reporting their numbers. When you only look at proprietary shipments, you miss a great piece of the puzzle. We just don’t know how big a piece it is.

That’s what’s so intriguing about a proposal by a company called OpenLogic to conduct a digital census among IT managers of how much open source software they use in their business. It is offering a tool called OSS discovery to make yourself counted, and the results would go into a public database. This would be a lot more accurate than the market forecasting that the Gartners, IDCs and Forresters of the world do. For IT professionals making tough purchasing choices, it could change the basis of their decision-making.

My heart goes out to anyone who launches an effort like this, because it’s so hard to get the support you need. Indeed, OpenLogic would have been wiser to begin by having some big names from the community backing them up rather than pitch their product first. If few firms bite, the census will be meaningless. Even if they do bite, a worthwhile census – even if it’s just limited to, say, North American firms – would probably take even longer than the population data-gathering Statistics Canada does every couple of years. And accuracy is by no means guaranteed – people have been figuring out how to get around census-takers since Herod ordered one during the original Advent.

Even if an open source census were half-baked, however, it would force CAAST, its American counterpart the Business Software Alliance and similar groups to recast their piracy figures. Almost by a nature a work in progress, it would nonetheless give many IT managers a starting point from which to make their best guestimates as to the real level of open source use in the enterprise today. It could also, depending on how in-depth it is, allow the industry to measure what kind of open source licenses are embraced by users and which are rejected.

Of course, there is no reason OpenLogic needs to offer the only open source census. If its effort gets any traction at all, I wouldn’t be surprised to see rival measurements taking place. This should be encouraged. Better to have some data to debate than argue over ambiguities.

For an industry that is focused on the management of information, it’s surprising how willingly IT professionals are to be left in the dark about the true state of the market. Open source has long been characterized as an area of great hope and opportunity to transform business models and reshape the way applications are developed and used. The time may have finally come to dig deeper, and see whether how much of that opportunity has been realized.

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