Tough Love for the Friends of FOSS

Open Source, open architecture, open systems, open standards. OSS, FOSS, FLOSS — free free FREE! If there’s anything to Gartner’s infamous hype cycle, Open source must fast be approaching some sort of critical zenith. But, as a non-technologist friend of mine stated the other day with just a hint of exasperation: “It’s all just software, isn’t it?” It’s a rhetorical question sharpened to skewer the plumpest of the Open Source Holy Cows. Set aside for a moment all those wonderful arguments about the social benefits of Open Source, and the potential to impact positively the development of the domestic software industry, and the egalitarian ideals, and the anti-monopolist stance — and what exactly are you left with? Software. It’s just software. I don’t care how socially enlightened you are, as a businessperson there comes a time when you’ve got to look at it and say, “hey, it’s all just software.” One of the clear advantages of binary points of reference is that complex questions often become painfully simple to frame. Try this one out: Why should my firm prefer software solution A over software solution B? Notice I did not say, “why should my firm go Open Source,” but rather, plain and simple: “why choose A over B?” Even if the ink on your MBA has yet to dry you must acknowledge that there’s more to this decision than just a price tag. IT Managers also know that non-technologists are at best aware that Open Source exists and is cheaper, but are unlikely to have much credible information on the subject beyond that point. More likely, if my experience is any indicator, you will find that most non-IT people are blissfully oblivious to the whole philosophical debate — and have no desire to be awakened from that Zen-like state. They don’t care as long as it works. If, along the way, they can save some money and improve the bottom line, all the better, but even there it is the result they are concerned with, not necessarily how it was achieved. I sat down with someone recently and waxed rhapsodic about the capabilities of the new Open Source groupware server Zimbra. My audience was a fairly technically savvy end user who had budgetary control over his firm’s IT department. The discussion had moments like these: Me: “It’s an Open Source solution that runs on Linux.” Him: “Does it work with Outlook?” Me: “You can download and install this for free — there aren’t any licensing costs.” Him: “Does it work as well as Outlook?” Me: “The system uses open architecture and an Ajax interface which can be customized easily.” Him: “What does it do that Outlook doesn’t do?” Me: “Let me demo this for you.” (demo follows, punctuated by oohs and ahhs) Him: “Hey, that’s really cool! Can it do all that with Outlook?” So how do we convince our non-IT corporates to even consider taking a step down the Open Source path? One thing is certain: Your best argument had better be stronger than “It’s free.” IT metrics are more art than science. With limited room to spare in this column I won’t be taking you for a stroll down the twisting paths that lead to ROI and TCO calculations, but before you present a recommendation to your firm to adopt an Open Source solution, you had better take that long walk (or better yet, assign it to someone with high spreadsheet tolerance thresholds). If you can’t make a business case for the move, you should quietly shelve your proposal until you can. The interesting thing about the process of making a business case in complex scenarios is that not only does the cheapest tool rarely win, but also rarely does the objectively best tool for the job. While that may seem counter-intuitive, experience proves it is correct. The reason: cost/benefit, or if you prefer that old saw, the 80/20 rule. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is one area where Open Source tends to deliver a genuine edge over proprietary applications. Put another way, it is not about the initial cost or the social efficacy, it is about the long term value proposition. It’s just software — just a tool — and that means it needs to solve a business problem, not simply be “the trend in the industry” or even “the right thing to do.” Don’t get me wrong, I think there are clear social benefits for promoting and adopting Open Source and I do feel that governments, NGOs and other public sector groups should make every effort possible to support the movement, but if I want to remain competitive in a commercial environment then I am going to select the optimal solution. If the optimal solution is Open Source, all the better; if not, well, better luck next time. Originally published in ComputerWorld (HK) May 2006.

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