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Open source: Driving change in the software industry

Open source software isn't free, but it usually is cheaper and more adaptable than proprietary software.

Commentary - If you look back at the defining device of the 20th century – the automobile – it’s easy to compare its growth and impact over the last 100 years to the transformational shift we’re witnessing in the software industry. Think about it. Produced by Henry Ford's Ford Motor Company from 1908 through 1927, the Model T was generally regarded as the first affordable automobile. It was immensely popular, despite the fact that consumers had few features to choose from. The car came with one type of engine and a limited number of body styles. And Ford’s “any color as long as it is black" policy was famously implemented in 1914, limiting the color option to just one. You paid for your car with cash, and you got what you paid for. Period.

The subsequent development of automotive technology was rapid, due in part to the hundreds of small manufacturers competing to gain the world’s attention. What we saw was the start of an international, industrial revolution as well as a struggle between automobile manufacturers for commercial dominance that is still fought today. As a result of greater competition for customers, and customers’ greater demand for innovation, car buyers now have an infinite number of brands, makes, models and pricing options to choose from to meet their individual needs.

The automobile’s upward trajectory is not unlike what we’ve experienced and continue to experience in the software industry. Until the late 1960s, computers—huge and expensive mainframes—were usually supplied on a leasing rather than purchase basis. Software source code was usually provided, and customers who purchased expensive mainframe hardware did not pay separately for software. But just like the auto industry, the software industry has grown from a few Henry Ford-like visionaries, often operating out of their garage with prototypes.

Look how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. Today you can choose between proprietary software and open source software. You can get free software, software with annual subscription licenses, etc. so that the way we consume software has also changed. You can choose to install software on premise, deploy it in the cloud, or use it in a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model. What you end up with is more combinations available to the software buyer, and open source is one of the driving forces behind that change.

I have always predicted that open source software would revolutionize the software industry, and in fact, adoption of open source has grown exponentially in the past years. Why? Before open source, all you could do was buy licenses of proprietary software. Like the Ford Model T, customers had limited options with software. With its increased flexibility and innovation, open source has actually driven the change in the way people are adopting and buying software by providing more options.

One of the myths about open source software is that IT organizations adopt it because it’s free. As nearly everyone knows, open source software is a lower cost alternative to proprietary software. But the reason companies are opting for open source software over proprietary may surprise you. Yes, open source's price tag is clearly an important driver, but it’s not the key advantage of open source. While cost is definitely a factor – especially in recent, tough economic times – the first and foremost reason why people are choosing open source is because it’s flexible – and reliable – enough to meet their needs. IT organizations are increasingly valuing the fact that they can adopt open source technologies on their own terms, at their own pace and within their most mission-critical environments. They can customize the software and choose a pricing model that’s much more flexible than what they would have gotten with proprietary software.

Because of all this, much of the talk about enterprise open source software centers around its potential, with upbeat projections offered for the next year, the next five years, and so on. Such forecasts overlook a simple fact: open source is already well-established in the enterprise. According to a recent survey by Gartner, more than half of organizations surveyed have adopted open source software solutions as part of their IT strategy.

Open source has been one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades, and has shown that individuals, working together over the Internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations. It has also shown how companies can become more innovative, more nimble and more cost-effective by building on the efforts of community work. If you are an open source advocate, you should be excited. Open source is continuing to grow in importance as the framework for intelligent computing from enterprise environments to smartphones to yes – the car in your driveway.

biography
Bertrand Diard is co-founder and CEO of Talend. You learn more about open source software by contacting Talend.