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Does your business benefit from open source?

Date
To go around, open source needs input.

To go around, open source needs input.

Free and open source software has touched all our lives whether we know it or not. Often misunderstood and treated with suspicion, many businesses take advantage of the benefits of it without acknowledging the community that powers it.

Before going any further, free software is not about price, rather an ideology that advocates that software has most utility when there are no barriers to its ability to be used, improved and studied at the source code level.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the GNU C Compiler (shortened to GCC) being gifted to the world. In 1987 a much younger but still probably magnificently bearded Richard M. Stallman released what is arguably one of the most important contributions to modern computing culture - a free (both in cost and in liberty) C compiler. At the simplest level compilers are software that take instructions written in a human readable structured language (such as C, in this case) and compiles it into instructions that a computer can understand (called machine code). The output of the compiler is a package of executable software referred to as libraries, executables or binaries.

Richard Stallman, often referred to online simply as RMS, founded the GNU Project in order to create a complete free and open Unix-like operating system. GNU stands for "GNU's not Unix", a recursive acronym style of which the world of IT is unfortunately fond and often reuses. At the time, Unix was a heavily IP encumbered system and solely the domain of large research institutions, corporate, government and military installations. During the early 80’s Unix, while a firmly established technology, was caught up in antitrust cases between the US Department of Justice and Bell Systems. AT&T attempted to commercialise Unix System V but this threatened to hinder collaboration between computer science researchers. 

A Unix-like system, created with the principles of protecting the essential freedoms of programmers and users alike to run, study, modify and distribute software without fear of having your work controlled by others was seen as desirable. Since Unix was already a key computer science research platform with many of features that we take for granted today being developed and experimented with on it - legal worries, corporate mismanagement and proprietary controls threatened to seriously slow down innovation. 

It is not hard to see that taking an operating system out of the lab and forming a true community around it is fundamental to the rapid progress that IT enjoyed in the last three decades. At the heart of this community was the GNU toolchain and the gem that is the GNU compiler.

Happy birthday GCC and thank you to all the researchers, developers and freedom advocates that made it happen over the last 25 years.

Enough history though. The free software community is very much alive and continues to contribute many new technologies and innovations which can be shared by all.

During the week I was talking with a very large software vendor doing an evaluation of one of their platforms. The platform was excellent and exceeded my expectations and as we delved deeper into the subcomponents I asked what tools they were using to perform some image manipulation functions. Almost embarrassed, they said ImageMagick, an open source image editing library developed by ImageMagick Studio. It struck me as odd that there was still a stigma around admitting that software vendors use open source software as part of their offerings.

Why the shame?

Systems are more than the sum of their component parts, if using a free library gets you the functionality that you need and as long as you comply with the licence, it makes good sense. Why reinvent the wheel and forgo what is sometimes years of community development and testing?

This is not a free software free pass, every business should evaluate the pros and cons of each library or subsystem in light of their needs but to exclude potential solutions because of the free software/open sources stigma is blindness. There are legal implications if you decide to extend these libraries, but it is nowhere near as problematic as often made out.

I'm not demanding that you release your product under an open source licence. If you are in the business of software development, often your developers will know of these libraries and tools. Have a frank and open discussion with them about the potential to leverage these libraries. Talk about what open source libraries you are using and what your policy is for contributing improvements back into the community or even sponsoring improvements.

Finally, if your business uses community developed libraries and platforms, celebrate it. You are in good company.

What free and open source software makes your professional life easier? Do you feel that corporate culture really understands the potential of open source?

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29 comments so far

  • Open Office, Firebird Database. Work perfectly and much less system overhead than some big names.

    Commenter
    DM
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 23, 2012, 4:51PM
    • Do i gain from it? Definitely, it made my business operation cheaper with some of the open source software and it's legitimately used as well.

      But for certain niche solutions, you still need proprietary software to support and maintain it, you just can't avoid it.

      Bottomline, you need to know your project requirements and objectives.

      Commenter
      Gerson
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 23, 2012, 4:54PM
      • Inkscape, Vector Graphics
        Scribus, Publishing
        Gimp, Photoediting and effects
        Put together with Linux or Windows and you have a good free system.

        Commenter
        Bluesea
        Location
        Bribie Island
        Date and time
        March 23, 2012, 6:21PM
        • Certainly agree about open source software. Re comment from DM, LibreOffice 3.5 is much better than Open Office, and just as free.

          Commenter
          Aussie Views News
          Date and time
          March 23, 2012, 6:48PM
          • Off the top of my head: Linux, Google Chrome (essentially open via Chromium), LibreOffice, Eclipse, GIMP, pari/gp ...
            I don't actively avoid closed software (MS Windows is still my main operating system), but I find the scrutiny and contributions given to open source projects often leads to a better product. For example, LibreOffice is so good in my opinion that even if Microsoft Office were free I would still choose LibreOffice.

            Commenter
            benjamin.tillman
            Location
            Townsville
            Date and time
            March 23, 2012, 7:15PM
            • I have a full Photoshop licenced copy at work but I'd rather open up an open source freebie called Paint Dotnet because its so much easier to use.

              And if you're not using FileZilla for your FTP then you're a fool to yourself and a burden to others.

              Going from Microsoft's Visual Source Safe to Subversion was a revelation. Again, so much easier and better.

              Then there's all those freebie open-source browser add-ons that we all take for granted like Firebug and Selenium.

              Most Cold Fusion professional developers that I know use Eclipse rather than pay for Dreamweaver or CF Builder.

              Commenter
              Merc
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              March 23, 2012, 9:31PM
              • Merc - you cannot compare Paint.NET to Photoshop. For simple tasks, yes it doesn't have the learning curve, but Photoshop is a million times more comprehensive and capable. A proper comparison would be Gimp (which I use at work) and Photoshop, and Photoshop trounces it in terms of usability, capability and stability.

                Commenter
                Scruff
                Date and time
                March 24, 2012, 7:39AM
              • Are those ColdFusion developers using Eclipse because it is better than Dreamweaver or because it's free? There's a big difference.

                Commenter
                Scruff
                Date and time
                March 24, 2012, 7:42AM
              • Professional CF Developers who use Eclipse have obviously decided that it is more cost effective for them to use Eclipse than Dreamweaver. Whether a strict functionality comparison between DW and Eclipse leads to DW being better or not, in the end what matters is that the job is done. Which also means that you will be paying for unused or unnecessary function in DW which you can get away with if u were using DW. Furthermore, it is likely that these developers are already using Eclipse for development in other languages - which you probably cannot do with Dreamweaver. And thats a consequence of Eclipse being Open Source. And also better productivity and opportunity for the developer.... Mmmm paying for Dreamweaver actually gives you less ..!!!! That is a big difference!

                As for the "feature bloat" in DW, its a similar situation re: Libreoffice v/s MSOffice. Many users can do 100% of what the need to using LibreOffice.

                Commenter
                Daniel
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                March 24, 2012, 3:09PM
            • What surprises me is that the Australian government would rather use corporate software, which means that all our personal information is controlled predominately by Microsoft and the U.S.
              Other countries have had the courage and foresight to utilise Open Source and take back their sovereignty and freedom. Our children are trained as automatons to slave in an Apple or Microsoft world whereas they should be using Open Source to learn and improve upon the wonderful tools that exist if you look behind the curtain. Every school should be using Linux, Libre Office, Gimp and Inkscape as well as a miriad of other free powerful applications. My taxes are propping up private corporations in other countries. I want my tax dollars to support Australia and build on our knowledge base here.

              Commenter
              Oz
              Date and time
              March 23, 2012, 10:58PM

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