A decade ago, European countries leapt out of the gate to take the lead in the radical open source movement -- none more so than France -- and left U.S. developers in the proverbial dust. Through policies and high-profile projects, the French Republic for years has been advocating for all open source all the time, in government and education.
And France is not stopping: This summer, an economic commission set up by French President Nicolas Sarkozy recommended tax benefits to stimulate even more open source development.
[ See who won InfoWorld's Best of Open Source Awards -- and what you can learn from these winners. ]
Today, France is arguably the most fertile ground for open source development in the world. The well-known and respected OW2 Consortium for open source middleware has its roots there. Giant corporations, such as France Télécom, have embraced open source whole-heartedly.
The fruits of this labor reveal a lesson that U.S. developers would do well to take note: Everyone prospers when working together under a single, shared technology vision.
Benefit 1: A focus from the outset
France's future grip on open source looks particularly strong, as it courts the next generation of open source developers. French authorities, for instance, handed out 175,000 open-source-software-equipped memory sticks to high school students last year. Technical universities have made open source their top priority, and some offer advanced degrees.
"All students in France use open source," says Bertrand Diard, CEO and co-founder of Talend, a French pioneer of open source data integration software. "A lot of universities in the U.S., except probably MIT, use traditional tools like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP." As a result, open source talent is more prevalent in France, Diard says; development is faster, and software quality is higher because French developers aren't distracted by proprietary and competing technology. "The culture of open source is more advanced here."
So what should U.S. developers, IT managers, and business execs learn from France's open source experience? "Change your vision," says Marc Sallieres, CEO at Altic, a French open source integrator.
Benefit 2: Uniting technology for the good of many
The capability to pull together various open source parts to create a single, unified platform may be France's most important open source benefit. It's what led to the amazing feat of government, education, and industry coming together to foster an environment for leading-edge open source development.
Miguel Valdes, co-founder of the Bonita Project, which has developed an open source workflow system, believes French open source developers have a better understanding than their U.S. counterparts about reusing code and integrating with other systems. "France is definitely the good place to be when working around open source," says Valdes, a Spaniard living in France. "The French social model was appropriate for innovators and entrepreneurs to start working on alternative solutions [to proprietary software], fostering the creation of new projects in which a good mix of experienced professionals and skilled computer science students work together."
Put another way, French open source developers have played a major role in laying the groundwork on how to aggregate six, seven, or more open source projects into a comprehensive platform, says Massimo Pezzini, a Gartner analyst.
Benefit 3: Liberation leads to creativity
It's not surprising that open source aggregation and integration skills have developed rapidly in France and spread elsewhere in Europe. "In the U.S., open source projects tend to be narrow and only for leading-edge organizations, whereas in Europe they're mainstream," Pezzini says, adding that France leads the way, followed by the Nordic countries. "European organizations have a business opportunity to combine multiple [open source] point projects into solutions for virtual private networks, SOA enablement, business intelligence," and so on, he says.
Consider the French word for open source, logiciel libre, meaning "free software" in the sense of "free as in speech, not free as in beer." Logiciel libre could easily be the rallying cry of the global open source community. Freed from the shackles of narrow point products, secretive software components and forced workarounds, French open source developers are encouraged to experiment creatively and liberally.
Recognizing the advantage of such effective creativity when applied across the entire IT spectrum, French universities are in the forefront of teaching open source to the new generation of developers and IT managers. "The key [for the U.S.] is to introduce more support for open source in universities and colleges," Pezzini says.