Take a look at the software installed on any business PC throughout the UK and the chances are that in the vast majority of cases you’ll see a fairly similar picture. Without a doubt most people will be using Microsoft’s Windows operating system along with the software giant’s Office applications suite. Add in other market leading packages such as Goldmine, Adobe Acrobat or any number of others and it is easy to see how the cost of equipping just one employee with the software they need can quickly mount up to staggering levels.

It is quite understandable that few people pause to consider this state of affairs. In a fast moving business environment everybody wants their computer systems to “just work” even if that means paying hundreds or thousands of pounds per desktop. Because of Microsoft’s domination of the market, it is unlikely that anybody without specialist IT knowledge will be aware that similar packages can be freely downloaded at absolutely no purchase cost. While many people may have a vague awareness of open-source software, few really understand what it is and what benefits it can provide for their organisation.
The term ‘open source’ refers to the software’s source code, the computer program which makes it behave the way it does. Most commercial software companies keep their source code a closely guarded trade secret but when software is released as open source its code is freely available for anybody to see and modify for their own purposes. Generally speaking, open source software is free and can usually be downloaded from the internet at no cost.

In business we rarely get anything of value without having to pay for it, so the most obvious question is: What is the catch? Although it is hard to tally the concept with conventional ideas of commerce, there really is no catch. In most cases open source software is of equal or higher quality than its commercial counterparts. Many of the most widely used open source packages have been developed by commercial software companies which give the software away for free and make money by providing support, training, implementation and other services based around the software.

Because open source software is free, it has no marketing budget and this means that it is hard to make people aware of what open source is all about and what the benefits are. The open source community is starting to catch on and just like the programmers who volunteer their time and skills to create the software, those with marketing skills are doing the same to help promote the product. One such volunteer is John McReesh, a co-leader of the marketing project for OpenOffice – a free suite of office applications “There is a recognition amongst some of the biggest software companies in the world that open source is actually a better way of delivering the kind of generic software that everybody uses. No business is going to get overwhelming competitive advantage by having a better word-processor or spreadsheet. Rather than having a whole lot of companies all competing to develop the best x, y or z it makes sense for them to pool resources and develop the software on a joint basis. The more people that work on that software, the better it is for the people who use it.”

Once a piece of software has its source code placed in the public domain a wide range of different people get involved in its ongoing development, these can include the original developers, academics and enthusiastic volunteers. Because the inner workings of the software are laid bare for all to see, it is easier for bugs to be fixed and for modifications to be made. Non-programmers can put forward suggestions for improvements and new features, and if there is enough support from the rest of the user community these changes will be added to future versions of the software. McReesh explains “We have two main channels of how we develop the product. One is that we get requests for enhancements from users, anyone that uses the software can come onto our website, look at all the planned developments and make their own suggestions. We have a voting process so that the product development is very much steered by what people want. In addition we in the marketing project try and provide some strategic product enhancements, if we see that there is a gap in the market that existing users might not be aware of then we will request development along those lines.”

While it is understandable to question the quality of software which is given away free of charge, it is worth remembering that much of the internet runs on open source software. The most widely used web server software in the world is the Apache HTTP (www.apache.org) server and in many cases this software is run on computers using the Linux (www.linux.org) operating system, both pieces of software are open source and can be freely downloaded and run by anybody and both are used to run many of the web’s leading business sites. Other popular open source systems which are used in web sites are the MySQL database (www.mysql.com) and the PHP scripting language (www.php.net).

However, open source software is not all about web servers and high end databases, there are plenty of free desktop applications available that can be used in place of commercial software. The most widely known of these is OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) – a suite of office applications which offers many of the features found in MS Office but has the distinct advantage of being completely free. The package started life as a product called StarOffice from IT giant Sun Microsystems, but the company decided to release the source code into the public domain under the OpenOffice name. The software is now supported by a devoted community of programmers and users who are only too willing to offer help and advice through the site’s discussion forums.

Users of open source software have two options for obtaining service and support, they can either source the information they need from the online community, which may take a little time and effort but, like the software itself, is completely free, or they can turn to one of the growing number of IT consultants who provide support services for the software. McReesh said “There is a lot of information available on the web, there are a lot of user support groups and so on which are run by enthusiastic volunteers who actually know the product very well and can deliver quite an impressive level of support. However if you want the security of being able to pay somebody to sort out issues quickly, there are an increasing number of consultancies and software suppliers in the UK who are providing products and services around Open Office.”

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