BOSTON—Despite the recent success of open source software projects like the Mozilla Foundation and Firefox Web browser, cultural and technical hurdles separate open source software from mainstream adoption in the developed world.
Open source development projects hold great promise for the future, and may give birth to a new form of corporation in the long term.
However, uncertainty among corporations about licensing and acquiring open source software, lackluster design and poor support for many popular enterprise applications still make open source software like Linux a difficult choice for many companies, according to a panel of experts at the Emerging Technologies Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Even with recent successes, like the state of Massachusetts decision to require office applications to use the OpenDocument format for all state agencies, cultural differences between corporations and the open source development community complicate everything from software acquisition to software development in many organizations, said panel members.
Companies are accustomed to negotiating the terms of contracts with software vendors, requiring confidentiality and using their purchasing power to back up demands for feature changes and product support, said Robert Lefkowitz, an independent consultant and member of the panel discussion, entitled “Open Source Goes Mainstream.”
Legal groups within corporations often chafe at the “take it or leave it” approach of open source licenses, such as the GNU Public License (GPL), and the inability to obtain “non disclosure agreements” from open source development groups in exchange for using their product, Lefkowitz said.
Even within companies, such as Novell, that have embraced open source software, there are not always alternatives to closed source products, said Miguel de Icaza, founder of the GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) project and now a vice president at Novell.
Novell moved all its employees from Microsoft Office to Open Office and around 70 percent of its users from Windows to Linux.
However, some critical business applications such as those used for finance or purchasing can only run on Windows, he said.
Incorporating open source development practices into traditional corporations can also pose challenges, said de Icaza.
At Novell, managers who were used to resolving problems in meetings and through face-to-face encounters had to learn to accomplish the same tasks using e-mail, after the company bought de Icazas company Ximian, which had a team of 40 open source developers working from home offices scattered across the globe, de Icaza said.
The Mozilla Foundation, which employs around 35 or 40 full-time engineers, recently incorporated to help it address some of the challenges of bridging distance between open source projects and private, for-profit companies, said Chris Blizzard, a board member at the Foundation.
Mozilla needed to be nonprofit to garner trust in open source software community. The Mozilla Corporation, a taxable subsidiary with the same goals as the Foundation, can help to promote the Foundations products and establish relationships with other corporations, Blizzard said.
“Businesses know how to talk to other businesses,” he said.
Panel members expected use of open source software and operating systems to increase, especially with companies like IBM and Apple building applications on top of open source foundations, said Lefkowitz and others.
Use of Linux and open source alternatives may also grow rapidly in the third world, as more and more individuals can afford computers, and governments back low-cost open source alternatives to software like Windows, de Icaza said.
However, the open source community will have to make operating systems like Linux easier to use and broaden support for hardware and software applications to challenge Windows and closed source programs in developed markets, experts agreed.
“The open source software community enjoys choice to a fault,” said Blizzard.
“Part of doing software design from a usability standpoint, is making choices: X will work, Y will not,” he said.
Widespread adoption of open source products and development are still a tough sell for many corporations that prefer to deal directly with vendors, rather than negotiate with diffuse development groups, said Richard Batty of Ford Motor Co.
“All of this is a huge paradigm shift,” he said.
Ford partners with Novell and is open to using open source alternatives to enterprise applications, but will “watch and learn” from others, said Batty, who attended the panel discussion.
The complicated mesh of license agreements that often come with open source deployments and the difficult migration path from platforms like Windows are impediments to adoption, Batty said. Blizzard agreed.
“Its going to be quite a ride and an education process for the open source software community to get to the point where you can drop (Linux) on a box and it works,” Blizzard said.