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Is It Time to Switch to Open-Source Software?

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The personal computer
revolution is all about freedom of choice, but, ironically, software companies
typically try to control what you do. You don’t buy a program, you license it.
You can use it on only one computer or on a specified number of computers. You
can’t modify its source code.


As a reaction to this, the
open-source software movement came into existence in the late 1990s, with roots
that go back to the hacker culture of the 1960s. Open-source software is
developed and improved by users with programming skills, who then share their
contributions with anyone interested.


Open-source programs are typically
free, although some carry fees and come with technical support. It’s a
revolutionary concept in product development, based on cooperation rather than
competition. Open source positively smacks of socialist utopianism.


Should you or your business
consider it?


Bernard Golden thinks so. He’s the
author of Succeeding
with Open Source
, recently published by Addison-Wesley. The book
is a how-to guide for organizations that want to move away from high-cost
commercial software.


Golden is also CEO of Navica Inc.
a consulting firm in San Carlos, CA, that helps organizations migrate to
open-source platforms. Depending on your time and talent, you may be able to do
it yourself.


The Ease-of-Use Issue


There are nearly 100,000
open-source products out there. The better-known ones include the operating
system Linux, a replacement for Microsoft Windows; the browser Firefox, a
replacement for Microsoft Internet Explorer; and the office suite OpenOffice, a
replacement for Microsoft Office.


You’ve probably detected a trend
here. Along with avoiding the high cost of popular commercial software, another
benefit of open-source software is greater security, since hackers have gone
after Microsoft products for years and Microsoft’s security vulnerabilities are


Open source has its downsides, of
course, and in a phone interview Golden pointed out the most important one: ease
of use. “Open-source programs are not quite as good with the ‘fit and finish,’”
he said. “Microsoft excels at offering wizards and so on that make it easier to
get started with a product.”


Another downside is program
availability. The situation here is similar to that with the Apple Macintosh
computer. Despite the existence of many programs, you may need to look
elsewhere if your needs are specialized.


Open-Source Options


The easiest way these days to dip
your toe in the water of open source is to download Firefox (<span
This free, fast, and intuitive browser is a direct descendent of the first
graphical browser, Mosaic, and it’s gaining in popularity. In the first six
months after its release in November 2004, Firefox was downloaded an estimated
50 million times. This has caused the market share of Microsoft Internet
Explorer, previously thought to have a monopolistic lock on the market, to dip


Firefox has a sister email program
called Thunderbird, which is also free and open source. Along with email,
Thunderbird handles Usenet newsgroups. And there’s a simple Web page creator
called Nvu.


OpenOffice (<span
is a much larger program but still easy enough to experiment with. It includes
a word processor, a spreadsheet, a drawing program, and a presentation program.
Versions exist for Windows, the Mac, and Linux, in English as well as other


Linux (<span
), although it has millions
of fans, poses more

technical challenges. It’s more
difficult to install and learn than Windows, but once you learn it it’s as easy
to use, according to reports from users. As testimony to how mainstream Linux
has become, you can now buy a Linux-based computer at Wal-Mart.


Companies such as Red Hat Inc. (<span

place a user-friendly interface over Linux and add features and support, but
prices can approach those of some commercial software.


Organizations that currently pay
significant licensing fees for commercial software stand to gain the most from
open source. If you’re thinking of adopting open-source programs for critical
business functions, it can make sense to bring in outside expertise.


At Navica, said Golden, “We
usually focus on identifying high-payback opportunities that will justify
making the effort. After that, outlining any changes necessary in manual or
automated work processes needs to be done. Implementation, testing, and
transition follow.”


iRadeon.com (<span
is another consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses migrate to
open source. This Roseville, CA, company specializes in allowing companies to
deploy and manage open-source software to multiple locations over the Web.


For more on open source, check out
the Open Source Initiative (www.opensource.org).


Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway
He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.



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