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Monday, 16 March 2009 06:30

Selling open source to the powers-that-be

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The idea of thinking up a hypothetical situation and then asking a group of qualified panellists to visualise how each would react to it is nothing new.

Eminent Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson is well known for devising this kind of situ-drama for TV and, often, using his scenarios to put people on the spot.

It was a different kind of hypothetical situation devised in Brisbane on Wednesday, one in which four seasoned IT practitioners and one expert in economic consulting were asked to try and sell the idea of open source to a minister in the Queensland government.

Posing the queries was Sam Higgins, the chief research analyst at Brisbane ICT consultancy Longhaus; on the other side of the table were Andrew Eddie, development coordinator for the Joomla! project, Paul Gampe of Red Hat Brisbane, Brendan Kelly, co-leader for IBM's worldwide open source community of practice, Damian Hickey of ZacWare, and Steven Brown, of Economic Futures Australia.

Higgins came up with various permutations of the theme, including one where a considerable sum of money had been granted for the development of open source in the state.

But, no matter who was on the other end, the main selling point of open source was always distilled down to one thing - open standards.

For example, Gampe pointed out that open standards would ensure that people always had access to their own information and proffered the example of Open Document Format versus the proprietary formats offered by Microsoft Word.

He said there had been massive investment by the Queensland government in IT but the proprietary nature of products prevented utilisation; open source, on the other hand, allowed companies to deploy software solutions as they needed, bending the software to their needs. With proprietary solutions, one needed to buy something new for every little need.

Backing up his idea, he said that when governments ensured that the data created about their own citizens was kept open, the take up of open source would automatically increase, simply because it was more cost-effective to use free software to handle documents and data which conformed to open standards.

And thereafter there would be a snowball effect - more take up would mean that there was a demand for more people who were familiar with open source software which would, in turn, lead to the need for more development to cater to future needs.

CONTINUED


The prevailing financial crisis served as the backdrop to the entire discussion; prior to the start, a couple of the participants told me that they had never encountered as many inquiries for implementing open source solutions as they were experiencing right now.

Another backdrop to the discussion was Eddie's presence; the content management system Joomla! is now a major force to reckon with, being used to host over 10 million websites. Joomla!, a fork of the Mambo project (which is for all practical purposes dead), has potential to become one of those killer applications that drive adoption of a development methodology.

When it came to open standards, Hickey, a down-to-earth geek, gave a local example - that of the scoreboard at the iconic Brisbane cricket ground, the Gabba. If scores kept at the ground - say, the records set by current Australian captain Ricky Ponting - were to be accessible to future generations, then they would have to be stored in an open format.

A logical lead-on from that was the development of software to handle the job; and from there onward it was a process of the use of thet software spreading to other countries. The simple move to provide scores in open formats would end up generating a whole lot of flow-ons, Hickey pointed out.

The US "free" trade deal signed by Australia in 2004 sets restrictions on investment in open source ventures; after the discussion was over, a couple of the panellists said that this had to be negotiated in some way or the other if investment in open source was to take place.

One way to do this was to invest in centres that trained people in open source; another was to invest in research and development connected to open source.

Eddie, a passionate supporter of the GPL, pointed out that mere infusion of money into a project was not sufficient; that could well result in the developers becoming rich and then forgetting about development altogether.

He pointed out that the project had to grow to the point where it had a life of its own; where development was the prime reward and where interest drove development. Money would help but could not guarantee the devlopmental process.

Kelly underlined the fact that it did not matter which brand or name the product came under; once open standards were guaranteed, that meant there would be no lock-in, irrespective of who was creating the content.

He said that any company which was involved in open source would always find it had a bigger pool of talent to draw on than those whom it employed; innovation was a primary reason for using open source.

Mention of the Microsoft tax was made often; Brown made reference to it in the context of saving money which could then be used for research and development or education.

He likened open source to the Great Barrier Reef; even if an oil slick spread over the reef, the organism itself would survive due to its distributed nature. Open source, he added, had two features - resilience and tenacity - which would enable its survival.

The writer attended the discussion as a guest of Brisbane Marketing. His own views on governments and open source are here .

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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