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Open source: Still waiting on IT

The New York Times' decision to open-source its Document Viewer technology shows enterprise IT how to get more from its involvement with open-source software.

If I needed a clear sign that commercial open source is alive and well, reading Roberto Galoppini's remarks on the five Open Innovation Awards winners provided that and more. I used to be able to count every open-source company on two hands. Galoppini mentioned four of which I've never heard.

I'll feel a lot better, however, when we hear less about vendors writing open-source software and more about enterprise IT releasing open-source code.

You have nothing to lose...

There's no question that enterprise IT is adopting open source in droves. Gartner speculates that 85 percent of enterprises already use open source. (The other 15 percent are, too, I suspect, but the CIOs at those companies simply don't know about the Mule, JBoss, Postgres, etc. that is running rampant through their halls.)

While some governments (the U.K. most notable among them, as Glyn Moody highlights) fear coloring outside the lines of proprietary software, others, like the Mongolian government, which has moved all of its Web sites to open-source Joomla, have embraced open source as a way to lower costs and increase vendor independence.

The companies and governments that get the most from open source, however, are those that view technology as a competitive differentiator and look to open source to deliver "high productivity, flexibility, robustness and considerably lower costs," like the London Stock Exchange recently discovered in its move to Linux.

For such organizations, it's time to start contributing back. No, not because doing so is somehow morally superior to using but not writing open-source software, but rather because there are tangible business benefits to contributing open-source code.

Take The New York Times, for example, which is releasing its Document Viewer under an open-source license within the next few weeks. According to BayNewser, Aron Pilhofer, the Times' editor for interactive newsroom technologies, said this is:

"a recognition that news organizations are slowly but gradually becoming more and more like technology companies." The shift toward open source software will strengthen journalism and transparency, Pilhofer said, because it enables news companies to leverage the smarts of large communities of software developers and technologically skilled journalists outside of the Times to continually improve the software...

[T]he Times expects that other organizations that use the tool will build new functionality on top the Times' code and then, in true open source spirit, share their enhancements back so that all organizations using of the Document Viewer will benefit.

This is precisely the sort of thinking that could lead the media industry out of its current struggles and into a more productive, collaborative future. Open source is no panacea for struggling newspapers, but it does offer a compelling way to increase outside contributions, improve user interaction, and help make its future a communal effort.

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has been calling on enterprise IT to contribute back to open-source projects. His is not a plea for charity. It's a call to recognize and fuel self-interest.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.