Open source opens doors

Whether or not your organisation is ever likely to go down the open source software route, you should welcome the formation this...

Whether or not your organisation is ever likely to go down the open source software route, you should welcome the formation this week of OpenForum Europe. The group, which brings together large corporate users and IT suppliers that back open source, aims to strengthen the perception and credibility of open source software as a serious alternative to proprietary software for business.

The key word for users here is alternative - all too often, in practice, users don't have one. The most obvious case is Microsoft's effective monopoly of the desktop but there are many other niche areas where users have only one real option.

Negotiating with a supplier that knows you have no choice is not a negotiation - it is a turkey-shoot. Many users experienced what that feels like at first-hand last year, when Microsoft announced changes to its licensing regime that would have dramatically increased costs for many users. It was only by expressing their collective anger through user groups that UK users managed to persuade Microsoft to delay the changes.

Anything that gives users a real alternative when facing a de-facto monopoly supplier is to be welcomed. That is why even the most dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft fan stands to benefit from the formation of the new organisation.

Open source has already proved to be a reliable mechanism for delivering robust, effective software - examples include the Apache web server and the Sendmail and Fetchmail utilities. Users who have adopted open source software in parts of their organisations say that it not only cuts costs, they have often found it helps to increase control over systems, improves system security and leads to increased uptime.

But open source's long-hair-and-sandals image is a big turn-off for corporate users. Anything that helps it to shed this image and build credibility among business users - and offer a threat to proprietary software suppliers - is welcome.

OpenForum Europe includes some big names - for example, Citibank and Lloyds of London on the user side, IBM and Compaq on the supplier side - which should help it to get the attention of corporate users. Its strategy of spelling out the business practicalities of using open source software in plain business language is the right way to win over hard-bitten sceptics. And the relationship with the National Computing Centre, which will act as a directory and guide to the quality of open source software and services, is another important plank in the bridge between the world of academics and enthusiasts and the world of business.

In the foreseeable future most users are unlikely to move to open source software for anything except a few niche applications - certainly a mass move to open source desktops is nowhere in sight. There are many real practical problems facing organisations that want to make a major move to open source, including risk management, availability of applications, availability of support, end-user acceptance, compatibility with other users' systems and the cost of retraining. But if, the next time a major supplier considers hiking up its prices, it stays its hand for fear of fuelling a serious open source challenge, then OpenForum Europe will have done users a great service.

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