Learning lessons from open source

Proprietary software vendors can learn a valuable lesson from their open source counterparts when it comes to customer care and respect

It will come as little surprise to anybody that open source software can save schools money. Even so, expect the publication of the study from the British Educational Communications and Technology Association (BECTA) into this issue to arrive on Friday amid a cloud of PR flak from some proprietary software vendors claiming that their software is actually cheaper in the long run.

But if vendors of proprietary software really want schools — and other organisations where IT budgets are as tight as a PE teacher's tracksuit — to choose their licences over the open source alternative, it is not just price they need to concentrate minds on, but perception. People will pay, but only if they feel they are being treated in a fair and equitable manner.

The proprietary software industry has been doing itself few favours lately. The Federation against Software Theft, while espousing lofty ideals, caused outrage among ZDNet UK readers recently when it suggested that IT staff cannot be trusted with software licences. The resulting Talkbacks made it as clear as a shrink-wrapping just what those IT staff think of FAST and the British Software Association and the 'visits' they threaten (in the words of our readers) perfectly law-abiding organisations with.

In such an environment, should we really be surprised that groups such as DrinkorDie — who were jailed for a total of six years on Friday — find a market for their cracked software? DrinkorDie's practices cannot be condoned, but they do highlight the lengths to which some will go to avoid prices they feel are as unrealistically high as the licence terms are harsh.

And the feedback we hear is that people do find the terms of their software licences harsh. For an example we need look no further than Microsoft, which may be an easy target but which arguably stands to lose most in the battle for the school desktops. Outrage greeted Microsoft's threatened legal action four years ago against Australian charity PCs for Kids, which refurbished old computers for disadvantaged children and was re-installing Windows on PCs. Although those PCs had originally been sold with Windows licences, Microsoft pointed out that reinstalling Windows was illegal under the terms of the licence, which to many people crystallised the whole problem with EULAs.

Three years later Microsoft addressed this particular issue with the launch of the Authorized Refurbishers programme, which allows installation of Windows 98 or Windows 2000 in certain circumstances for a nominal charge. But do you really want to run versions of an operating system from half a decade ago? Cynics see such moves, rightly or wrongly, as little more than attempt to gain lock-in for the next refresh cycle.

It is all so different from the world of open source vendors, and other IT companies who are coming to terms — however painfully — with open source. UK schools can get hold of StarOffice, for instance, simply by going to Sun's Web site and downloading it for virtually unrestricted use in classrooms and at home. Some 1500 schools have signed up so far.

BECTA has a role in helping with licence management, as IT staff still have obligations, but it approaches them as adults rather than as naughty school children — or worse, as would-be criminals. Proprietary software vendors could learn something here.