LinuxWorld: Market slump to pay dividends for Linux

Why Linux community is excited by the fall in technology stocks

Eric Raymond, self-proclaimed open source evangelist and Linux advocate, is not depressed by the state of technology stocks. In fact, he believes now is an ideal moment for companies that are looking to tighten their belts to start using low-cost open source software.

The programmer, conference speaker and colourful member of open source aristocracy -- his passion for open source is rivalled only by an enthusiasm for guns -- says that companies could gain a financial edge by looking at software for which the source is openly available.

"[Open source] looks like a better proposition than ever," Raymond told ZDNet News at the LinuxWorld show in New York. "Companies need to save money, so they need to stop writing cheques for expensive proprietary software."

The licensing agreement that covers the open source Linux operating system -- the GNU General Public Licence(GPL) -- allows anyone to implement and modify it for free and without having to pay royalties. Open source software is considered not only cheap to implement but typically also low cost to maintain, because it is developed by volunteer community members. The only disincentive for any company may be that releasing source code means giving up the right to charge for licensing the code.

Raymond, however, believes that open source is ideal in the current economic climate. He also says that the release of kernel 2.4 -- the core of the Linux operating system -- has as much political significance as technical importance, as it gives developers another chance for their companies to take Linux seriously. "As a political event, it allows people to start up dialogue that may have stalled," he says.

The message spread by Raymond appears to be having an effect. The open source development portal Sourceforge, which enables developers to collaborate on a variety of programming projects and offers support services to companies using open source, says that a growing number of firms are seeing benefits to releasing source code and getting involved with the open source community. Product manager Adam Frey says that a growing number of firms are adopting open-style software development internally and looking to release code to the wider programming community.

"They're finding it really is the way, in terms of the productivity they want," says Frey, who reveals that some companies estimate that they could increase productivity in development by up to 15 percent if they moved over to a more open source development ethos. Frey says that open source does not suit all companies and but those most appropriate are large institutions that do a lot of development work in a distributed manner. This includes, as well as major technology companies, Wall Street firms that have relied upon in-house software for decades.

One major company that has recently announced a commitment to releasing some of its source code, as well as promising to invest heavily in Linux, is IBM. IBM developer Christopher Cashell says that the development culture within Big Blue is changing to reflect this open source attitude. "It's almost like we have our own internal open source community," he says. "We're opening up more and considering letting people from outside in as well."

The market hype surrounding Linux in particular companies has, however, been particularly strong and it's clear that small companies need to sure of a commercial payback in order to make open source work. Companies that rely on protecting their code for survival may simply not find open source viable. "During the last half of the year many Linux companies had a hard time staying afloat," says Chris Coleman, open source editor for computer publisher O'Reilly. "When you give away a large portion of what you do, you have to know how to make money."

However, Coleman says that the expertise and size of the open source community makes it possible for many companies to reap financial benefits from making source code open.

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