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EU gives open-source software a boost

The European Union is hoping to give the European open-source software industry a competitive boost through a €1.5m (£1m) research project kicking off next week.

The focus of the two-year Calibre (Co-ordination Action for Libre Software) project is to improve the way open-source projects work, through organised research and collaboration with industry, and to bring open source more into the mainstream.

Ultimately this will put Europe a step ahead of the rest of the US-dominated software industry, the project's leaders hope. Calibre will launch on 10 September at University College Cork.

"Interestingly, the majority of open-source contributions come from Europe, but strategic thinking and leadership of many open-source projects is probably very much US-dominated," said Prof Brian Fitzgerald of the University of Limerick's department of science and information systems.

The University of Limerick and University College Cork are leading the project, with the National Microelectronics Application Centre and 12 academic and industrial research teams from France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and China also taking part.

Open-source software development allows individuals and companies to collaborate on software that is not owned by a single entity, and which can be distributed and modified by anyone.

In recent years companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Novell have begun to back high-profile open-source projects such as the Linux operating system as a way to challenge the dominance of proprietary software suppliers such as Microsoft.

However, the development model is still largely informally organised and remains poorly understood, Fitzgerald said.

To put open source on the industry agenda, researchers need to carry out detailed analysis, massive collection of data and studies from the software engineering and economic points of view. For example, part of the project will be to compile a database of open-source success stories and to codify and distribute best practices.

In particular, Europe has competitive strengths in the "secondary" software sector - areas such as automotive, telecommunications and consumer electronics - but this sector does not currently have an effective approach to open source, Fitzgerald said.

"As Calibre represents the leading authorities on open source in Europe, or indeed worldwide, we are in a unique position to transfer these lessons to European industry," he said.

The project also plans to tackle open-source issues such as ensuring code quality and supply of developer talent, and how businesses can plan strategy around open source.

Researchers will even examine the socio-cultural challenges to open-source projects, such as '"alpha-male" territorial squabbles and the tendency of developers to burn out.

The group also hopes to address the issue of software patents, which Fitzgerald and others see as having the potential to derail the progress of open source.

"Clearly some form of protection for non-obvious innovation is necessary for industry," he said. "However, copyrights and patents come from a different era, and we need to derive more suitable versions which will work in today's software marketplace and are palatable to industry."

Calibre will also examine two related trends currently cropping up in software development: distributed development - factors such as outsourcing and globalisation - and unconventional, or "agile", development methods.

The project's first meeting will be held in November at the Hague, which will also see the establishment of a permanent industry-research forum called Calibration.

Calibre will co-ordinate with existing EU projects around open source, including COSPA (Consortium for Open Source in the Public Administration) and FLOSS-POLS, which examines the use of open standards and open source in government.

Matthew Broersma writes for Techworld.com


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