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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Open Source

By Richard Boyd, CEO and President, 3Dsolve Inc.

For the last 16 years I have spent my career working with a team of software developers to shrink-wrap proprietary software code and sell it in every imaginable form. We sold it in retail stores, through direct mail, by telesales, through value-added resellers, in concert with foreign re-publishers in multiple languages worldwide. We made custom versions and allowed others to sell our proprietary software under their own affiliated label. We bundled it with hardware and other software. We sold it in various forms at price points from $29 to $1500. We even lobbed a truckload of bright packages over to the Home Shopping Channel at one point.

When you spend your career doing something and finally learn to do it well, it is a bit disconcerting when someone changes all of the rules on you. As Alvin Toffler said in this fast-paced and mutable information age, the illiterate are not just those who can't read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. In my North Carolina vernacular that translates as old dogs need to learn new tricks.

As one of the founders of a small software development company created after the burst bubble and trying to shoulder our way up among IBM, Red Hat and SAS here in the Triangle area of North Carolina, it may seem surprising that it took me as long as it did to come to the inevitable conclusions in this article. Hear me now fledgling entrepreneurs: you would-be software Titans. Open Source Software (OSS) is no longer the elephant in the room we can all ignore. It is a socio-economic force that is transforming the information landscape beneath our feet.

Those of us in the software application business may have been insulated from the first shockwave when Linux began to supplant Microsoft and others in the Internet server space. But our time has come at last. OSS is an irresistible force meeting the moveable object that is proprietary software. So give up your IP, abandon your field and languishing (and probably indefensible) patents and join the rest of us who are helping customers cast off the yoke of software oppression.

Here's Why You will not be the next Bill Gates. There will not be another Microsoft… nor will there be another SAS or Adobe/Macroparamindcomp conglomerate. There is growing evidence that for a variety of reasons, including cost of ownership, security, reliability and liability, the software market is increasingly turning to open source solutions.

The New Rules: Customers want more control. They increasingly demand the ability to change and adapt their applications themselves. When an organization licenses proprietary software, it does so without the flexibility to add the features it needs unless the organization is influential enough to be able to convince the developer to add them, and even then the company must often resort to begging or paying through the nose. Some points to take note:
  • Virtually every widely desirable application will have an open source equivalent very soon.
  • Since 1996, the most popular web server has been Apache with almost 70% of the market for public web servers.i
  • GNU Linux is the No.2 web serving operating system and is gaining in market share on Microsoft Windows.ii
  • Sun's Openoffice 2.0 is a very viable replacement for Microsoft office.
Now major corporations are beginning to turn to open source solutions. A survey by InformationWeek a couple of years ago found that 67% of companies use open source products, with another 16% expecting to use it in the following year; only 17% have no near-term plans to support open source products.iii

Civilian and military government agencies across Europe and throughout the world are also turning to open source software:
  • The UK government adopted a policy that it will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements, and that it will only use products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.iv
  • The Danish Board of Technology released a report in 2002 showing a potential savings of 3.7 billion Danish Kroners (500 million Euros) over four years by using open source software in public administration.v
  • The Canadian Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces has called open source software a viable cost-saving opportunity and said that it offers concrete opportunities for... technology insertion and flexibility.vi
  • Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam has called for his country's military to use nonproprietary technology, asking defense engineers to develop and implement on open platforms.vii
  • The US Department of Defense has authorized the use of open source software since June 2003.viii
And they are mad as hell and not gonna take it any more.

On a clear, warm day in Norfolk, VA March 24th, 2003,Terry Halvorsen, Executive Director, Naval Personnel Development Command, laid out a clear vision for how the United States Navy would procure training from contractors in the future and the discipline that will be required from vendors to demonstrate:
  • Reduced training time
  • Reduced number of instructors required
  • Lowered maintenance costs for equipment
  • Improved safety
  • Better target identification
  • Improved readiness reporting levels
This transformation in training, as they called it, would be accomplished largely by requiring all training software to be delivered as open source with reusable code and content and no proprietary software. This was a two-day conference. On the second day almost all of the large defense contractors were gone. They needed to convene war rooms, develop strategies to circumvent this new threat to their firmly entrenched businesses. But some of us stayed and listened. We were the smaller companies; the ones fighting for the crumbs the big guys overlooked or couldn't be bothered with. We listened and took notes. We didn't know it yet, but we were being given a blueprint on how to excel in a brave new world.

From that moment, I made the decision to embrace open source and open standards software at my fledgling company. At first I saw it only as a way to respond to what my customer sought. Then I thought of this approach as a way to distinguish my company from the other contractors. And finally I came to see that it was in fact an inevitable movement. A social and economic phenomenon embodied prominently in Red Hat, only 10 miles down the road from me, and emerging in the hearts and minds of IT buyers all over the world. They were growing mad as hell at proprietary software vendors and determined not to take it any more.

There is definitely a freedom that comes with letting go of convention and accepting the inevitable. As a small gaming technologies company founded by a team of entrepreneurs who have based careers on proprietary software, it wasn't the most natural step. I was concerned about the reaction I would get from the investors who believed in my original business plan. The one touting all of our proprietary technology and barriers to entry; the one that promised patents and unique technological marvels that would make them all rich. I decided to do a bit of research before presenting this new plan.

Open Source Software - What's It? In discussing the subject, a useful first step is to define the term open source software. An accepted definition exists and will be used here. The Open Source Initiative lists 10 criteria that a software license must meet in order to be considered open source:

  1. Free Redistribution: The software can be freely given away or sold.
  2. Source Code: The source code must either be included or freely obtainable.
  3. Derived Works: Redistribution of modifications must be allowed.
  4. Integrity of the Author's Source Code: Licenses may require that modifications are redistributed only as patches.
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups: No-one can be locked out.
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor: Commercial users cannot be excluded.
  7. Distribution of License: Rights must apply to everyone who receives the program.
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product: The program cannot be licensed only as part of a larger distribution.
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software: The license cannot insist that any other software it is distributed with must also be open source.
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral: No click-wrap licenses or other medium-specific ways of accepting the license must be required.ix
I have used the term 'open source software" or OSS to include open source software, free software, and open standards.


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