Liberating open source

Open source software is a key strength in Europe's software industry with its developers, researchers and companies being extremely active on the world stage and with many being among the leaders, facts which a recent initiative is trying to capitalise on, given in the near future open source will become a strategic necessity.

Open source even has its own designation across the continent. It's called Libre software. "In the 80s, software like Linux was called free software – free as in freedom, not price. In the 90s, the term open source was coined to make the concept more accessible to the business community," says Joseph Feller, a senior lecturer at University College Cork and leader of the IST project CALIBRE's dissemination and awareness activities.

"In Europe, the term libre software is used to capture that original meaning – while it's true that open source software can be acquired for free, it is really in the freedom to modify it, redistribute it, and so on, that the true value is created," he says.

Heavyweights and world leaders in the primary software sector are now competing directly against open source applications – built by global communities of collaborating developers – like the Firefox browser and Open Office productivity software.

The primary software sector tends to grab the most headlines – word-processing applications for example can become industry drivers in themselves. However it is the secondary sector, where manufacturers like Nokia and Daimler Chrysler create applications specific to their own products, that will produce the greatest growth over the next ten years.

Frank van der Linden of Philips Medical Systems argues that for global companies, it doesn’t make sense to invest resources in software that doesn’t create any differentiating value for the company. "The global demand for software development is so high that it simply can't be addressed without including collaboration with open source communities," he says.

Accessing the open source benefits
Accessing the benefits of open source remains a problem, however. Links between the business and open source communities remain fractured, and many businesses are not sure how to approach or develop an open source initiative, or how to develop a grassroots community. There are few validated business models for open source products and developing models is fraught with trial and error. Finally, many businesses are completely unaware of the benefits and opportunities that exist.

CALIBRE was launched in June 2004 to galvanise and inform industry, both to strengthen Europe's global position in open source development and to enable European enterprises to benefit from it.

CALIBRE focused its dissemination and awareness efforts along three main strands: developing an industry forum, plotting a roadmap for future open source software research, and fostering transfer. "The industry forum, called CALIBRATION, is up and running and it’s got legs, it will endure as an industry-led group beyond the end of the project," says Dr Feller. The forum features some world-class heavyweights like Philips Medical Systems and it discusses open source issues facing its members. It's a venue to share experience and develop networks.

The research roadmap highlights the critical issues to be addressed if open source is to continue to create business value. It encompasses CALIBRE's scientific objectives like distributed development methods, but it tackles some fundamental issues as well, such as how to develop appropriate business models, how to deal with the changing nature of open source, and balancing the interests of a grassroots community that sprung from the ideals of the commonwealth against the needs of multinationals focused on market, competition and profit.

Identifying promising business models
CALIBRE identified some promising business models, such as that used by ZEA Partners, a CALIBRATION forum member, and a network of companies from across Europe who share customers, contacts and expertise to deliver software related services. "It's a network that allows small companies to deliver a whole product in a way that they can't do on their own - by allying together they can compete with big companies."

Dr Feller also points to standalone companies like MySQL AB, a database server developer, who succeed in building a business on the back of open source software.

"Early attempts to build business models around open source focused only on identifying revenue models," says Dr Feller. "But revenue is just a small slice of a business model; companies need to find ways to manage customers, manage knowledge, innovate and compete effectively – not just generate income."

CALIBRE's efforts at fostering transfer of Libre software with industry have probably had the biggest short-term impact. The project has helped empower 'champions' in sceptical companies accurately assess open source through in-company workshops.

"The first in-company workshop we carried out was with Eurocontrol, and it was a phenomenal success, demonstrating the potential for open source in a critical area, air traffic management," says Dr Feller. "It helped them understand the potential and it pushed research knowledge out into the business community."

It's a critical step. If Philip's van der Linden is correct, it will no longer be a simple question of value, of the bottom line, or of producing robust software. Instead, open source will become essential to meet the simple quantitative needs of industry in Europe and across the world. Thanks to CALIBRE, the potential of open source software to meet those needs is one step closer, and Europe is well placed to maintain its strong position in open source development.

Contact:
Dr Joseph Feller
Senior Lecturer (BIS)
University College Cork
Ireland
Tel: +353-21-4903337 / +353 21 4776197
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Source: IST Results Portal

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