The open source movement was an unusual development. Many things that happen in the IT industry are fairly predictable, but the emergence and rapid growth of open source was not easy to foresee.
I first noticed it in 1996 when a post-graduate from Edinburgh University mentioned the Linux operating system to me, and remarked that it was very popular in the universities. This got my attention.
Many IT trends start out at universities and infect their way into commercial companies. Students use various information technologies in their years of study and are predisposed to use them when they leave for gainful employment.
They influence purchasing decisions in several ways: they have skills on their favourite technologies, they advocate their use and sometimes they just act in a maverick fashion and introduce the technology without anyone's direct approval.
Digital, in its heyday in the late 1980s, and Apple with the Mac in the early 1990s, both profited from this, especially in the US. Open source was the same, except slightly different. It has become more infectious because it is free. Nobody has to sign a purchase order. All that is required is a relevant problem that needs solving.
However, there is another factor with open source; the idealism of youth. A general feeling of animosity to Microsoft has given rise to a kernel of activists that see open source as a crusade against the 'evil' Redmond empire.
For potential business users of open source products, this software evangelism is not really relevant and may even be off-putting. But there is another side to this.
It is many of the same committed evangelists who provide the free labour that has turned open source from a wacky idea into a viable software channel. Many open source products are actually better supported than the proprietary products they compete against.
Open source has a viable economic model. A group of individuals builds a software product for its own use and then agrees to share it for free with anyone else who wants to use it, so long as they do not try to profit from it and they offer any improvements they make to it back to the community of users.
If the authors never intended it to become a commercial software product they may as well do this, if they can be bothered to organise a support group.
If the software maintenance and enhancement process is well organised, then there is probably less reason than usual to have concerns about software support.
The excellent support provided by the Linux and Apache communities has illustrated this. IBM's backing of the movement in recent years (which was not done out of altruism) set the seal of respectability on open source and put minds at rest.
There are clearly a number of open source products that can offer a fast return on investment because they are genuinely excellent software products and the support is acceptable.
The cost is very low, but one has to take into account the learning curve and the cost of deployment and also the potential impact on the rest of the software that they are expected to integrate with.
Chief amongst the open source products are Linux and Apache, but there are others such as Star Office from Sun Microsystems for office software, and Gnome or KDE as a desktop graphical user interface. There are also many open source products in gestation including everything from immature enterprise resource planning products to specific vertical market products.
The appeal of open source has to be much greater for IT shops that are technically oriented; the whole point of open source being that you get your hands on the source code and can tailor it to your requirements. You naturally have to learn how to interact with the support community for the product in question, if you are going to mess with the source.
However, the possibilities of very inexpensive software and no on-going licence charges will compensate for a fair amount of extra effort where it is required.
There is also the possibility that some companies might like to initiate open source communities of their own. Open source is really an extension of the shareware idea which has been implemented by companies to share software they had written that didn't have an obviously large market - some pharmaceuticals or aerospace software comes to mind - and where the software wasn't thought of as being a competitive advantage.
In specialist spaces open source can simply be a more structured arrangement of shareware. In any event the possibilities are different for different companies, but there is an opportunity to reduce costs by getting involved in the open source movement in a constructive way and it does not mean taking up arms against the commercial software market. The products and the markets can co-operate quite happily.
US space agency believes the crater could have preserved ancient organic molecules from the water that flowed there billions of years ago
Valve quietly closes down hardware initiatives launched following Windows 8
Scientists create a virtual reality simulation of a black hole sitting at the centre of the Milky Way
Simulations like this can help people understand complicated systems in the universe in a better way
The most luminous galaxy ever discovered is cannibalising at least three of its smaller neighbours, study finds
The galaxy radiates at 350 trillion times the luminosity of the Sun