Early software programs, as open source advocates like to remind us, were free. But were only operable on the machines for which they were written. Many of these early programs came at no-cost extras with the purchase of the hardware.

Market and legal forces conspired to change all of that. Software was unbundled from Hardware and the no-cost model disappeared into thin air. But voices in the wilderness continued to argue that “code wants to be free.” Open source has re-established the idea of free programs. Source Forge (sourceforge.net) calls itself “the largest repository of Open Source code and applications available on the Internet.” As of early December, it listed almost 92,000 registered products — all free to download and use. In addition, major vendors like IBM, HP, and Dell sell hardware with open source software pre-installed.

Not surprisingly, the IT industry has not acted unanimously in embracing open source. Microsoft has a problem with free software; there are open-source alternatives to many of the software products on which Microsoft’s revenues depend. Companies like SCO are nonetheless trying to extract revenue by suing those who use the “wrong” open source programs — and in SCO’s case, the effort has met with little success.

Under the right conditions, access to free code can be both cost-effective and prudent. The programs are free to download and use, but that doesn’t mean open source alternatives are the most cost effective. In the world of open source there may be no vendor to look after support needs, although user communities can be effective. But it means that IT professionals must fully understand the dynamics of such communities and determine whether support that may reside there is acceptable and enough.

Open source also changes the perceived source of value for software contracts. The code is free, but figuring out how to use it may involve some cost. This scenario reminds me of the story about a recently retired production engineer who was called back to get the line running again. The employer was desperate and the retiree, knowing he was free to name his price, came into the plant, picked up a hammer, and walked down the line. With one well-delivered blow of the hammer the line began to move. Then he gave his quote: “That’ll be $5,001 – $1 for the blow and $5,000 to know where to strike it.”

Some companies are prospering by open sourcing their software and charging a fee to help clients effectively use it. A number of software vendors are also making money by helping clients stitch together and customize multiple open-source systems. IT professionals must know which open source systems can be trusted, and when two smaller systems can be combined to form a larger, more effective whole.

Open source is a part of today’s commercial software reality and it’s not going away.

A Google search on “open source tutorial” leads to some excellent material. Alternately, it’s possible to download and install one of many open source systems available today, if a more hands-on approach to learning is preferred. Open source opens up a fascinating world to IT professionals, returning them to the early roots of programming.

Maybe code really does want to be set free after all.

Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at robert@ fabian.ca.

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