Open source said on cusp of broad acceptance

Open source software, in which developers get access to source code, still is not being used by the masses but is on the cusp of a much broader acceptance, said Brian Behlendorf, founder of Apache, during a speech at a Software Development Forum conference in Burlingame, Calif. late last week.

The advent of open source has meant big changes in development and business paradigms and raised legal issues as well, industry officials acknowledged during the event, entitled “Open Source: Practical Solutions for Real World Problems.”

“The business models of IT are shifting away from something called a product,” Behlendorf said. He cited Microsoft Corp.’s decision to sell its software on a subscription basis rather than as single products.

Behlendorf described open source as being at a “tipping point,” in which an idea becomes extremely widespread and then reaches adoption.

“My claim is right now, we are at the tipping point with open source,” he said. However, critical mass of open source software adoption has not yet happened, he said.

“The fact is, most of you running laptops out there are not running something other than Windows,” Behlendorf said to the audience.

What will drive adoption are factors such as Asian countries like China that do not want to pay billions for Microsoft software when open source alternatives are available.

Companies are not ready to put their own software in the open source realm, he said. “Many companies are not yet ready to kill their cash cow,” said Behlendorf.

However, more service-oriented startups are moving away from the concept of software as a downloadable object to providing software as a Web site, Behlendorf said.

An IBM Corp. official touted the virtues and drawbacks of open source.

“Open source forces you to be open to ideas,” said IBM’s Rod Smith, vice-president of emerging Internet strategy at the company. IBM has embraced open source in projects such as the Xerces XML parsers and the Globus grid computing effort, according to Smith.

Open source can be a major source of innovation, provides a community approach to development and also presents a good way to develop emerging standards. In addition, enterprise customers are asking for open source, he said.

However, developers need to ascertain that an open source project meets customer requirements, Smith said. Some perceived benefits, such as lower total cost of ownership, are not always realized, he added. Support also can be a concern, said Smith.

“Most projects that are open source don’t make it,” Smith said.

Panelists in a session on business models for open source noted the issue of customer support.

“By far, the biggest issue inhibiting companies from making the shift to open source software is support. Hands down. There’s nothing else that comes close,” said Matt Asay, director of the Linux Business Office at Novell Inc.

An audience member, however, said open source software enjoys better support than proprietary, commercial software. “You file your complaint and the original developer responds,” said the attendee in reference to one open source software vendor.

Oracle Corp.’s Wim Coekaerts, director of Linux engineering at the company, said the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City led users to replace destroyed systems with Intel boxes running Linux. He cited the incident as one example of a growing acceptance of Linux.

“Today, worldwide, tons of companies are production on Linux,” Coekaerts added.

Lawyers on a panel related to legal issues noted that conflicts could arise in incorporating proprietary software in an open source offering.

“A lot of open source contributors have day jobs at related industries and are contributing to projects without permissions of employers, and some of those contributions could actually belong to an employer,” said Steve Mutoski, corporate attorney at Microsoft. “It’s a hypothetical risk, but it’s there.”

But audience member Jeremy Allison, co-creator of Samba, said he has only seen open source software being incorporated into proprietary systems.

“I’ve never known proprietary code being contributed to open source,” Allison said.

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