Perceptions of Open Source

Last week the AGI Technical SIG, ran a one day workshop of Open Source in GIS, and although I very much enjoyed the presentations I was most interested to judge people’s perception of Open Source.

The day started with Martin Daly of Cadcorp debunking some of the myths of open source software, including

– Open source does not mean free !!
– Open source means I can get access to the source code, different to “freeware”
– Open source developers are not cola fuelled communists operating from their bedrooms, but mostly professional programmers employed by commercial companies to contribute to open source projects.
– In many ways open source licensing is as complex as commercial closed source licensing !!

There also seemed to be some confusion or a least frequent use of the terms “open standards” and “open source” in the same sentence. Open Standards are all about delivering interoperability between applications developed by different organisations (think AA batteries – always the same size, voltage etc) – such applications may be “open source” but may also be closed source.

Likewise some open Source applications may be proprietary in nature, offering a private way of transferring data across a network for example.

Of particular interest to me was the business case for selecting ‘Open Source” solutions rather than the more traditional “Closed source” Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) route.

From the user perspective this seems clear, lower initial capital outlay in terms of licensing although the overall Total Cost of Ownership may not be that different with potentially higher internal and external (if available) support costs.
A very unscientific poll of the people at the workshop actually using “Open Source” did seem to be made of largely academic and research users – who are perhaps capital poor but geek rich and are therefore able to work through the maze of compiling using the right code library versions etc.
It was notable that local and central government were poorly represented, it this because the issue of ongoing support is more of an issue – I’m really not sure ?

From the application developer perspective the motivation to go “Open Source” is less clear, the “many eyes” argument of a wide and skilled developer resource looking at your code was one of the arguments put forward, and although this makes sense for the small dispersed development team, I’m not sure this is so much the case for a company like Autodesk.

I have a lot of time for Autodesk and Mapguide in particular, the new open source version demoed by Giulio Pagan looks great, but it is interesting Autodesk chose to experiment with open source with MapGuide rather than Inventor or even AutoCAD ?

It appears that there is little focus of Open Source GIS client development, while MapServer and PostGIS offer a real alternative to closed source software like ArcIMS, there is no open source ArcView or MapInfo, tools like uDig are moving in the right direction but GIS open source does appear to be server centric at the moment.

And yes I do run OpenSource myself, I have MapServer running on my Powerbook !!

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

3 comments

  1. Martin Daly

    I would rephrase your list of what I said as:

    – Open source does not *always* mean *without licence fee*, but it does guarantee access to the source code (free as in speech), unlike freeware which is just “no cost” (free as in beer)
    – Open source developers are not *always* cola fuelled communists operating from their bedrooms, but mostly professional programmers employed by commercial companies to contribute to open source projects.
    – Open source licensing *can be* complex as commercial closed source licensing.

    I’m not 100% sure they are all myths either. Apart from that, you’ve nailed it.

    Martin

    P.S. Thanks for the grief I’m going to get over this now…

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