Tools, Trials and Tailoring Enhance Open-Source Options

Peter Coffee: It's not about "free"; it's about knowing the price, say buyers considering alternative platforms for projects.

Its especially pointless to argue about a glass being half empty, or half full, if the man behind the bar is still pouring. Thats my message to those who wrote to ask about the jarring juxtaposition of last weeks letter, which praised the breadth of development tools available for open-source platforms, against an eWEEK news story about Linux distributors working to deal with a "dearth" of visual tools and integrated environments.

Some readers castigated the latter story as overlooking obvious examples, such as Borlands Kylix and JBuilder; Oracles JDeveloper; and Metrowerks CodeWarrior IDEs. That misses the point that the would-be Linux developers quoted in that story were looking for the same cordial coupling between their Linux distribution and its tools that theyve grown accustomed to seeing between Microsofts operating system and Visual Studio tool set.

Linux long ago won the interest of developers who actually seek out the challenge of crafting their own solutions, and is rapidly gaining ground with those who are willing to do that work in return for corresponding freedom to choose best-of-breed combinations; the question now is whether open source can take the next step to become an alternate destination on the path of least resistance. One key advantage of open source, observed Don Babcock at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., is that the trial periods offered by vendors of conventional software products arent really long enough to determine if the product is going to fit the need.

Building on my metaphor of open source as a custom-tailored suit versus conventional software as "off the rack" apparel, Don said, "Imagine if you could try on a suit, but for only 15 seconds at a time." You cant discover everything that matters in the fitting room, he observed: "You have to live with it for a bit. Most open-source software offers that opportunity for long-term discovery before you start paying for it. Most other software requires that you make the investment first and repent at leisure."

Note that Don doesnt labor under the misprision that open source is a free lunch. His phrase, remember, was "before you start paying for it." Over a project life cycle, the initial cost of acquiring software is tiny, and people are generally willing to pay what something is worth; the problem is that only open source lets you find out what something is worth before you have to pay.

Another reader, VP Jim Kunkel at Laurcat Technology Co. in Houston, offers another perspective on software cost: "In the open-source model, the risk can be controlled by use of contractors who build to a fixed design for a fixed price. Maintenance and upgrade can be negotiated with as much precision as the two sides will tolerate. In the marketplace, this added comfort of knowing the cost traditionally carries a substantial premium, but open source gives the little guy the ability to have customized apps with controllable back side costs at a price he can afford. When we, as providers, recognize this and start selling that way, the recession in IT will be over."

And that will make all our glasses a lot fuller.

Tell me what you want in your glass.