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3/4/2003
02:07 PM
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Other Voices: What You're Probably Overlooking About Open Source

Here's the real reason you need to pay attention to open source. You might say it's arrived in real time.

When I hear people discussing open-source software, they almost always focus on cost advantages. Sometimes they talk about the quality of open source versus more commercial options. But even this is too narrow a view of open source. Another important advantage of the open-source model is the speed of the release cycles, which may be even more important as the information technology industry moves toward real-time business.

Most commercial software companies take years to release major new versions and weeks or even months to release substantive patches. For contrast, in Eric Raymond's classic "The Cathedral and The Bazaar," he describes the Linux kernel being released "more than once a day" early in development. This was early in Linux's evolution and many of these were simply small fixes and modifications, but even as Linux has matured as an operating system, it isn't unusual to see stable kernels (the even part of the series--1.2.x, 2.0.x, 2.2.x, etc.) released at least every month. To see a list of the recent Linux kernel releases, visit www.kernel.org. In this respect, Linux is fairly representative of most substantial open-source projects.

It's also interesting that open-source developers are moving at this speed while still releasing a product whose quality at least matches that of commercial competitors. Recently, Reasoning Corp. performed a quantitative analysis of the TCP/IP protocol for five commercial systems and the Linux kernel (version 2.4.19). The five commercial versions had a higher defect density than Linux. (To receive a free copy of this report visit http://www.reasoning.com/downloads/opensource.html.)

In addition, this development model is more geared toward real-time business because the source code is available for instant modification if an urgent change is needed. Your developers can submit the change to the community and it might be incorporated into future releases, minimizing potential customization of future versions of the software.

While this column may have the feel of an open-source manifesto up to this point, I'm not writing off commercial software. In fact, I strongly believe in the wonderful world of capitalism and especially the "invisible hand" that guides free markets. Therefore, I have no doubt that commercial software companies will respond if their customers use their invisible hand.

It isn't difficult to show examples of how open source has already affected even the largest software companies. Microsoft didn't increase the price of the updated Windows 2003 Server. You could certainly argue this was due to the pressure Linux is putting on Microsoft's pricing.

The need to move faster while maintaining or increasing the level of software quality may just be another impact of open source. The interesting thing is this change could have an even more dramatic effect on their business. If you think about Fred Brook's "The Mythical Man-Month" (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1995), you can't accelerate a software project by adding developers. Therefore, this may require substantial changes in the way these software companies manage production. I don't pretend to be smart enough to know what those changes may be, but software companies could get some good ideas from open-source projects.

Sean J. Ammirati is the founder and director of Avanti Strategies.

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