Open source's transitional phase

A report from last week's OSCON conference in San Jose

This was the first year that O'Reilly's OSCON was held in the Bay Area, and it's possible that the combined effects of moving the venue from Portland and a tough economy made this year's event a bit more low-key than usual. Or perhaps it's a sign that open source has become less exotic and more mainstream.

I was on a panel hosted by uber-blogger Matt Asay from Alfresco on the topic of "The True Cost of Open Source." The panel also included two customers, Matt Deuel from Virgin Mobile and Barry Klawanis from SFO, as well Forrester analayst Jeffrey Hammond. While most of OSCON is about technology, we managed to pull in a decent crowd for a thursday afternoon.

[ Also on InfoWorld: The biggest news out of OSCON was Microsoft releasing code for Linux drivers. ]

The conclusion was as close to unanimous as you could get without all of us breaking out in song: Yes, open source saves you money -- no surprise there. While results can vary based on the specific software being used, the customers on the panel reported savings of 80 percent or more and had no projects where open source costs exceeded what was expected. There are several factors that contribute to this lower cost:

  • Customers can try out open source for themselves and make sure it does the job
  • Open source software often stresses simplicy and modularity over complexity

Modularity is not inherent in open source, but it is a common theme that stems from open development. If you're going to make it easy for people to contribute to or extend your product, you need to make sure it's modular. But as a customer, it also means you need to make sure the software you chose has the functionality you need. Open source software doesn't always have all the features of proprietary software. But when it has the features you need, it can be much easier (and cheaper) to deploy.

Still we have a ways to go before the open source business model is completely proven. But providing high-quality products at a low price is a great start.

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