Open source an AU$500m industry in Australia

The Australian open source industry generates AU$500 million of revenue every year, according to the inaugural Australian Open Source Industry and Community Census, released today at the NSW Trade and Investment Centre.
Written by Brett Winterford, Contributor

The Australian open source industry generates AU$500 million of revenue every year, according to the inaugural Australian Open Source Industry and Community Census, released today at the NSW Trade and Investment Centre.

The census, conducted by consultancy Waugh Partners and commissioned by open source advocates NICTA, IBM and Fujitsu, highlighted the size and the strength of the industry, but also exposed many of the challenges preventing a more widespread adoption of open source technology.

The results, gleaned from 327 community respondents (estimated as a 10 percent sample) and 129 companies from the Open Source industry (estimated as a 25 percent sample), suggests that open source is no longer a cottage industry in Australia. Only half the survey respondents worked in an organisation with fewer than five employees — compared to 78 percent for the broader industry (from the 2008 ACS ICT report).

The industry is very hands on. Almost four in five of respondents worked in the fields of software development and customisation, implementation and migration and support and maintenance of systems. And 43 percent of respondents said that their most lucrative service was software development — a mere four percent make most of their income from the resale of software licences.

Open source advocate Jeff Waugh said that in compiling the census, the numbers confirmed anecdotal evidence he'd noted from the industry — but also exposed many of the myths surrounding open source.

The main misconception, he says, is a perceived lack of support for open source solutions.

Over two-thirds of the industry surveyed, he said, employed more technical staff than other roles — which suggests less emphasis on sales and more emphasis on "getting the job done".

Education and skills
Waugh hopes that the census may prove a useful tool for the industry to map the relationships between where young open source workers obtain their skills and what skills the industry is looking for.

"There is a nice big gap there — and that gives the industry a far better idea of where they should be investing in, in terms of training," he said.

When looking for new staff, industry participants favoured "experience in the open source community" first and "experience in an open source company" (in a commercial environment) second. A far lower priority was a university degree or industry qualification.

"This shows a lack of perceived value for open source qualifications," said Waugh Partners consultant Pia Waugh.

Two in three respondents "got their skills from learning about open source in their own time," Jeff said. "There was not a lot of formal open source training at all."

"This is an obvious opportunity for the education sector to look at which areas to get into — because the industry demands it," he said.

The education sector, Waugh said, is "not addressing open source skills face on."

"The sad thing about computing science degrees at universities is that rarely does it teach you to be a good programmer in the industry let alone in the open source world," he said. "They rarely teach you, for example, the intricacies of reading and editing somebody else's source code — something the majority of open source developers are going to have to do. You end up having to learn the hard way. To make any contribution in this industry you need to know how."

Universities, he said, need to "practically involve their students" in open source projects. "That would provide an immense amount of value," he said. "It's for public good and can be done at little cost."

The report praises the Queensland University of Technology as one in which students get hands on experience with open source technologies alongside proprietary software as part of the syllabus. QUT, Waugh said, offers dual-booting systems for its students.

QUT was best rated in the census, followed by University of Sydney, Australian National University in Canberra, University of Queensland, University of Melbourne, Monash University, UNSW, and the Universities of Adelaide, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Many Australian Universities, Waugh lamented, are too easily attracted to the industry sponsorship (hard dollars) available by teaching skills around proprietary software. "It's just another challenge that the [open source] industry faces," he says. "But it's a solvable problem — it is just one of the growth things we have to deal with."

Novell, he said by way of example, is leading the charge by investing in getting SUSE on the curriculum at TAFE colleges.

The good news from the census — those that obtain the skills desired by the industry can look forward to a lucrative career.

"People working with open source are paid more on average than other people working in the IT industry," he said. "They are more employable too — regardless of what work you are doing. Learning about open source software leads you to good jobs — more technically demanding jobs. You get to skip the help desk because what you are learning is far more deeply technical."

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