Is the downturn good for open source?

During the last recession, low TCO drove a rise in open source adoption. Whether that happens again depends on developers

The period from 2000 to 2002, when the economy was almost as terrifying as it is now, was the largest period of growth for open source in the enterprise. Is something similar happening again today?

In retrospect, it seems clear why organizations took up open source software during an economic downturn. As companies struggled to be leaner and more efficient, IT budgets dropped while the necessity for solutions remained the same. Open source solutions demonstrated a lower cost of ownership than their proprietary equivalents, and companies were more likely to buy into open source.

From where I'm sitting, as director of community for the Web's largest open source software destination, there are signs that the same thing is happening again. SourceForge.net served an all-time high of more than a petabyte of downloads last September for the first time ever, and the number of downloads between September 2008 and February 2009 increased by at least 30 percent from the year before. We're also seeing a noticeable boost in the creation of new open source projects. These trends are encouragingly similar to what we saw in 2000-2002.

While history may repeat itself, I think it's probably going to be a harder fight this time. The magnitude of this recession is far greater than the one in 2000-2002, and it may not be enough for open source to offer the most cost-effective solutions at a time when companies face massive budget cuts and are hesitant to adopt new software. After all, what good is a cost advantage if nobody's buying anything at all?

More importantly, the areas where open source is most competitive are different nowadays. In 2000-2002, open source fought for dominance over the operating system, database software, and middleware, and winners included Linux, MySQL, and JBoss. Building upon the spoils of that victory, open source has now spread up the software stack into business applications and into mobile and desktop applications that businesses and professionals use every day. The result is that the open source movement has an entirely new group of people to convert.

Potential purchasers of enterprise open source solutions, such as ERP, CRM, and financial management systems, are no longer solely IT managers and techies -- those who demand technological practicality and stability but can be a little more forgiving about nearly everything else. Instead, these purchasers are more likely to be C-level executives who make more cautious, visible decisions and demand compliance with increasingly nuanced business processes. While open source may be better than proprietary software at meeting cost requirements, executives may still lean toward well-established proprietary solutions for their perceived maturity -- or maybe just because it feels less risky to them.

C-level executives also have to pay attention to the needs of business users when purchasing software solutions. When it comes to desktop applications and mobile devices, business users are also less forgiving than most techies, but in a different way: They expect things to be comfortable and easy to use. Although many developers of open source applications have spent a great deal of effort on usability and have the potential to win over professionals (or, in Firefox's case, already have), I don't think it's a stretch to say that some open source software is less than friendly.

The quintessential end-user is hesitant to adopt new software. It was probably easier to convince an IT manager using a proprietary Unix OS to switch to Linux eight years ago than it will be to entice a Microsoft Office user to switch to OpenOffice.org today. That's not because OpenOffice.org isn't great software; it is. It's because end-users have grown so attached to their favorite proprietary software that if you want them to use anything else instead, you may have to pry it from their cold, dead hands.

Open source software offers customers an alluring alternative in the new, leaner economy. In order for businesses to switch to open source the way they did last time, however, they must assuage pickier users, most of whom have exacting requirements and cling to existing solutions. If open source software providers can step up their game and take usability seriously, more customers will be able to convince their users to switch -- and adopters of open source alternatives may emerge from this recession stronger than competitors who stuck with proprietary solutions.

Ross Turk is Director of Community at SourceForge, the largest open source developer community on the Web.

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