Will open source software for Windows catch on?

The release of an open source version of Niku's project management app could spell the start of a new trend

Behavioral scientists will tell you that in the animal kingdom -- which includes Homo sapiens -- truly altruistic behavior is extremely rare, if it exists at all. Yet even behavior motivated by self-interest can work for the public good. There’s a cadre of historians who believes that the framers of the U.S. Constitution wrote it to protect their own landed interests, for example, yet few would deny that it worked out pretty well for the rest of us.

Like those original framers, software vendor Niku also supplies a management and governance tool, but this one is digital and targeted at IT. Earlier this month, Niku announced a free, open source version of Workbench, the project management component for its Clarity server suite. So is Niku one of those rare altruistic companies that just wants to give away enterprise software out of the goodness of its corporate heart? Not quite.

David Hurwitz, vice president of marketing and strategy at Niku, tells me that Workbench has about 100,000 users -- but not a lot of return.

“Workbench is negligible income for us,” Hurwitz readily admits. “We have long since shifted our business in and around delivering an enterprise application, Clarity.”

Although Workbench is not a revenue generator for Niku, the company realized that fostering a development community around an open source version could give its other products a wider audience. And of course, it’s never a bad idea if you can shift the development costs needed to keep your products current off your own books. 

Appropriately dubbed Open Workbench, the new version will be supported, upgraded, and administered by Niku, with source code available for download at SourceForge.net by the end of the month. As the only part of the Clarity suite that is an end-user application for the desktop, however, Open Workbench runs not on Linux but on Windows.

That may seem surprising at first, but Hurwitz believes the perception of open source as a Linux-based movement may soon be blasted open.

By giving its project scheduling software away for free, Niku is also turning the tables on Microsoft -- which has been known to offer free software to eliminate the competition -- and then some, by releasing the source code as well.

According to Hurwitz, Microsoft Project is a little-known cash cow for the Redmond-based giant. In Microsoft’s defense, what’s wrong with a cash cow? Isn’t that what capitalism is all about? But capitalism is also about what Niku is doing.

According to sources that prefer not to be identified, Microsoft Project generates about $700 million in revenue. Now there will be an alternative that’s just as capable, Hurwitz says, but for free.

Niku will set up two community sites: one for end-users and one for developers. Niku employees will monitor the sites and answer questions. Then, as the open source community builds in new features, Niku will certify future versions of Open Workbench for use with Clarity.   

Might Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, or other enterprise vendors have similar Windows desktop apps that they’d consider making open source?

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal quoted Steve Ballmer as saying Microsoft’s biggest competitive threat comes from Linux and other open source products. If what Niku is doing becomes successful, Ballmer’s comments may be more prophetic than even he realizes.