Open source: More than just a cheap date

Open source started off as a way for enterprises to save money, but it is becoming more influential as a way to improve IT flexibility.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Perhaps it's a sign of an upward shift in the economy, or perhaps it was simply an inevitable conclusion, but open-source adoption is increasingly a matter of flexibility and innovation, not price. While some early adopters have long advocated open source as a means to more flexible IT, it's only now that the general marketplace is awaking to the possibilities.

It's not surprising that enterprise IT would be looking to lighten its software cost burden. Proprietary software vendors derive an ever-growing chunk of their revenue from software maintenance fees, a "boondoggle" for vendors, according to CMS Watch, which fattens vendor coffers while providing minimal value to customers.

Not that it's easy to avoid them. For example, SearchSAP.com records the difficult gyrations enterprises must undergo to escape SAP's maintenance charges, leading some to give up on cutting their direct SAP costs and instead focus on trading for lower-cost operating systems, databases, etc.

Open source offers an exit to this charade, resetting pricing to more manageable levels, as Dave Rosenberg writes and as Gartner now posits (after years of suggesting otherwise), but also refocusing software's value proposition. As noted above, and as highlighted by CapGemini's CTO, open source has become a central means for enabling "frequent change and flexibility [as well as sharing and openness as] a core competency for success."

The idea is to use open source as a base layer upon which applications and other end-user facing value can be built. Open source, in this way, can make enterprise IT significantly more effective.

Open source is not always the right solution. Sometimes it will be too basic and other times too complex (just like proprietary software).

It doesn't have to be a perfect fit to be useful, however. Just as the "good enough" revolution is transforming consumer technology, so, too, is it changing the way enterprises think about IT. Wired's description of the impact of "good enough" on the consumer market says much about open source:

The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they're actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as "high-quality."

And it's happening everywhere. As more sectors connect to the digital world, from medicine to the military, they too are seeing the rise of Good Enough tools like the Flip. Suddenly what seemed perfect is anything but, and products that appear mediocre at first glance are often the perfect fit.

The good news is that this trend is ideally suited to the times. As the worst recession in 75 years rolls on, it's the light and nimble products that are having all the impact.

Like open source. Again, not all open-source products fit this description. OpenOffice, for example, is hardly "light and nimble." That said, even big projects like OpenOffice can be stripped down to their piece parts and made useful. You'll find OpenOffice components in a range of public-facing Web services (document storage/conversion sites, for example).

That's the power of open source. Enterprise IT can transform it into all sorts of things. And as more commercial open-source software firms license their technology under more permissible licenses to foster adoption--JBoss is a recent example--enterprise IT will increasingly be handed free code of advantageous licensing, exceptional quality, and professional polish, this last element something that has at times eluded community-led open-source efforts.

It's a good time to be in enterprise IT. The economy is perking up and the world is waking up to the benefits of open source. Open source is a great way to save money, but it's more than a price tag. It's also a key way to improve IT flexibility.

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