For Open-Source Code, The Future Is In Applications - InformationWeek

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4/5/2005
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For Open-Source Code, The Future Is In Applications

Open-source apps could better meet the needs of small and midsize businesses, software exec says.

Open-source software has won wide adoption among businesses for such infrastructure IT as operating systems, application servers, and databases. But applications, with their specialized business logic, have been slow to follow suit. That may be about to change, according to Larry Augustine, CEO of Medsphere Systems Corp.

Medsphere is a supplier of a commercial application, the OpenVista information system for small and midsize hospitals and health-care institutions. It's built on top of open-source code called the VistA Electronic Health Record that the Veterans Administration developed for use in 158 VA health-care centers. The VistA system integrates clinical, financial, and administrative information into one information-handling system.

Augustine became CEO of Medsphere after first investing in it as a venture capitalist in Azure Capital Partners. He is also chairman of VA Software and owner of the SourceForge, Slashdot, and Freshmeat Web sites, which are known collectively as the Open Source Developer Network. Tuesday he addressed the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco in a speech entitled the "Next Wave of Open Source: Applications."

"Each generation of open-source developers looks for a new challenge," said Augustin, addressing a mixture of 700 open-source developers, venture capitalists, and commercial software representatives. Today's developers are not about to invent an open-source operating system with Linux already established or a database system with MySQL, Postgres, and Berkeley DB already available, he noted.

But the application arena beckons. The field is extremely broad, and it's not clear in which area most open-source applications are likely to materialize. A few already exist, such as SugarCRM customer relationship management and Compiere ERP applications. Augustin attempted to spell out his guidelines from where a future round of open-source applications is most likely to emerge.

"Big, expensive, heavy applications are ripe for replacement. They're hard to install, deploy, and upgrade," he said. And it's hard for their suppliers "to go down market" and serve the needs of small and midsize business due to the size of an ERP installation, he said.

Future open-source applications will be built where there is already a large community of users of a commercial application. They have knowledge of application requirements and can provide leadership on where a next-generation application should go. ERP is a good example because not only are there many large users of human resources, financial, and inventory applications, but there's also a huge, unsatisfied market among small and midsize businesses that can't afford major vendors' products, Augustin said. If knowledgeable developers lead the way on an open-source project, they need to find an enthusiastic set of users for their output. Businesses committing to use an application will help generate the vigorous community of developers and users that sustain open-source projects, Augustin said.

In addition to ERP applications, he speculated that voice over IP is another potential area for open-source applications to emerge, as well as his own field of health-care information management.

Open-source businesses can grow up around these application areas, he predicted, by adding value to basic open-source applications or providing technical support for such applications. But he said that open-source businesses are unlikely to displace established application vendors. Rather, he said, they will likely cater to the small and midsize businesses that aren't able to invest in such applications.

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