The title sums up my main thrust, I think. I’ll let you all in on a little secret, shall I: SOFTWARE ISN’T EXPENSIVE
Epoch making, I know. I’m not talking about piracy, either.
You, see there are a few things called the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Public Licence that where set up to allow programmers, software engineers (which are not the same as programmers) and consumers to create, distribute and sell software and licences to companies without those companies having to pay massive amounts of money to use the software products.
A lot of people and organisations have reservations about converting to or using open source or free software. This is, mainly, because of perceived incompatibilities between different software and operating systems. This is just plain stupidity, and the fact the a lot of IT Consultants still refuse to admit that there are plenty of legitimate open source solutions that are easier to use, more efficient and have better support for end users than the majority of proprietary software products is baffling.
Don’t get me wrong, as a software engineer I like to receive remuneration for products and services rendered. But this should be a question of morals rather than plain Capitalist urges. Especially in our current financial climate, with a lot of companies in the world having to reduce their work force to remain trading.
There was news of Bristol City council taking open source software more seriously last month. It turns out that the council wanted to save money, and someone suggested that by switching to open source software they could save £7.3 million a year in software licensing alone. That figure is AFTER calculating the costs of moving over to open source systems – the cost being around £1 million, but most of that was on hiring people to set up the new system, and the little training required to show people that Star Office or OpenOffice will make them more efficient than using proprietary office suites.
After a few months of planning, the council decided to scrap the idea of moving over to open source solutions opting instead to upgrade ALL of their systems to Microsoft’s Windows 7 Operating System, and Microsoft’s Office 2010 at a cost of over £10 million for one year. Their reason: No one else is doing it, so why should we?
Seriously. That was their reason. I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute.
Now that we’ve discussed that, let’s move on to the moral implications I was talking about.
In the UK we have socialised medicine <insert American’s claiming that this is worst thing to ever happen to any civilisation, ever>, and it’s a brilliant system. Since the 1980’s the government has been seeking to digitise the whole system, claiming that it would make response times for time critical systems (ambulances and the like) and collaboration between specialists (an Oncologist being able to give a consult to someone in a different hospital without moving out of their office, etc..) easier and more efficient. The main problem, though, has been the extremely near sighted insistence on using proprietary software suites; which during this time has lead to deaths, misdiagnoses, and wrong prescriptions being given out.
I can’t blame all of this on proprietary software, though, some of the time these problems have be caused by the government having a “lowest bidder” system. This is the same system that they use to outsource defence contracts as well. Basically, the company who says that they can do the work for the least amount of money get the contract. That’s it.
But for some reason, when it’s been suggested that open source software could be a viable solution, it’s been dismissed out of hand. I have two theories about this:
1) “If it’s free, it can’t be fit for purpose.” This is the wrong attitude to take, completely. I can name several things that are free that we all take for granted day in and day out. The Internet (which runs on Unix – a free operating system), Air, Nature, Animals. These things are all unfit for purpose?
2) “It doesn’t have a brand name on it, like ‘Microsoft’ or ‘Apple’.” Neither does The Internet, Air, or Nature. Just because something doesn’t have a famous brand name on it, does not mean that it wont be any good.
The last thing I want to mention is the perceived lack of interoperability between open source systems and proprietary systems. I agree that some proprietary software solutions will have custom file formats, with patents and copyright on them to stop open source products from opening or editing them. This is perfectly legitimate, one company trying to protect their Intellectual Property is a fine thing. But this idea that open source software does not work well with proprietary software is a fallacy.
I’ve already mentioned that The Internet (or rather, the servers that contain the files we recognise as The Internet) runs on a free operating system called Unix. Does this mean that computers running proprietary operating systems can’t connect to the internet without having specialised software in place? No, you can browse the internet, download files, ever edit your blog or website without even having an internet browser installed.
The same thing can be said about open source office suites, image manipulation, 3D modelling, gaming software. They’re all fully compatible with the proprietary versions of similar software. In fact, Microsoft even shared their office suite format types with the world so that open source office suites could use these file types. So, all office suites are able to handle Microsoft’s file formats. The same can be said about image files, as software companies don’t (generally) own the intellectual property on the different file formats out there. This is the same across the board, with software companies giving out the file format descriptors shortly after they’ve released their software solutions (both open source and proprietary).
So, my question, after imparting all of this information to the world (which was already out there, anyway) is: Why are companies and organisations still afraid to adopt open source systems? Especially now, of all times, during the recession.
Food for thought, possibly.