Singapore inches toward open source

Awareness for open source software has increased, but the level of activities is nowhere it can or should be, industry observers say.

Although some companies and government agencies have embraced open source, the level of adoption in Singapore is still low by most counts, industry observers say.

According to Red Hat, open source adoption has grown over the years in Singapore--but not at a rate where it can or should be.

Harish Pillay, open source evangelist and Red Hat Asia-Pacific's training manager, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "There is definitely an increase in the adoption of open-source software here for good reason. Businesses are becoming more aware that they have the choice, without the technology, licensing and financial lock-ins of proprietary systems."

However, Pillay added: "Things are better, but not by much."

"Things are better, but not by much."
-- Harish Pillay, Red Hat Asia-Pacific

Yap Boon Leong, managing director of open-source software house Resolvo Systems, agreed it has been a slow march. "Relative to three years ago, awareness has significantly improved but the [number of] commercial transactions related to open source implementations has not improved on a correlated basis."

Industry players believe there is still potential for the open source movement to gain more ground in Singapore, particularly if the government gave greater support. For example, Linux has been gaining momentum in China, due in part to the government's strong support for open source.

Despite the increased open source awareness in Singapore's institutions of higher learning, Pillay said, more can and should be done. For one, it would have helped if the government emphasized the role of open source in the upcoming Standard Operating Environment (SOE) initiative, which aims to reduce the cost of technology implementation and ownership across government agencies in the island-state.

"The IDA SOE project is going to cost Singapore too much by not even considering anything from the open source space. More tax payers' monies will be spent when it could be channeled to better software, as well as encourage and foster the community of open-source service providers," said Pillay.

On the outlook for open source in the next 12 to 18 months, Yap said the Singapore market will continue to be "lukewarm".

"It should be pretty much the same, with slight improvement at best," he said. "This is because, if you leave it to market forces, enterprises in Singapore are relatively cash-rich and can afford to continue to spend on proprietary software.

"Large organizations with large IT budgets would be less willing to adopt open source as they have the deep pockets to fund proprietary software, license fees and maintenance fees"
-- Prianka Srinivasan, IDC Asia-Pacific

"Also, the number of open-source providers in Singapore is still very small. And lastly, the government is taking a very neutral stand in terms of open source adoption," Yap explained.

Prianka Srinivasan, a market analyst for IDC's Asia-Pacific software research, agreed that some Singapore companies may not be attracted by the potential cost savings that open source projects promise to yield. She noted that "large organizations with large IT budgets would be less willing to adopt open source as they have the deep pockets to fund proprietary software, license fees and maintenance fees".

Srinivasan explained: "These organizations might perceive commercial software to be more dependable in terms of support services, as compared to open source software."

Beyond the technology debate
Red Hat's Pillay believes it is important not to turn the discussions into a debate that pits one technology against another.

"The point is that it is not about open source per se," he said. "It is not [about] a proprietary market versus an open source market. It is about a single market that should rightfully be empowered to do things and not be constrained by proprietary interests. It is about being able to access and yet retain control of one's content, whether newly created or acquired. It is about rehash, or mashing up contents freely without being asked to pay a bundle. It is about being able to do as one feels with stuff one has acquired--music, video, software and so on."

The focus, Pillay added, should be on "growing the commons", where people can use private rights to create public goods. He explained: "It is about entrenching the concept and philosophy of the Creative Commons in Singapore. Creative Commons Singapore is slated for launch in December, and I recommend focus on that."

The lack of activities from the Singapore Open Source Alliance is, perhaps, also reflective of the state of the open source market. In 2005, a nine-member industry alliance, led by Resolvo Systems, was formed to promote open source software adoption in Singapore. The other members are Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

According to Yap, not much is happening today with the Singapore Open Source Alliance. "There has not been much traction since [the alliance was formed]. Part of the reason is because the enterprise market in Singapore is still not ready or open to consider adopting open source," he said.

But all is not lost in Singapore, and others have a more bullish outlook.

Neeraj Shaabi, country manager for IBM Singapore's software group, said: "Open source has certainly built too much interest to be ignored any more.

"It is certainly expected to accelerate," Shaabi added. "Many organizations are getting past the 'discovery phrase' and real adoption is beginning to take place. The industry is certainly promoting it and a broad and real adoption is beginning to take place. The industry is certainly promoting it and a broad line of solutions from most vendors are being supported."

According to Novell, open source adoption will also increase as companies see established software companies step up support for this market.

Tham Joon Nam, Novell's business strategist for Asia West, said: "There is growing consensus that open source technology provides better security compared to proprietary products. However, reliability is still a major concern for companies in Singapore."

"With big players such as HP, Dell, IBM and SAP certifying open source software, the industry is recognizing the reliability of open source," Tham said.

He noted that the key factors affecting the adoption rate of any technology is its ease of use and level of available support. "With the growing adoption of open source software, there is now greater demand for talent to support the platform," he said. "Novell has addressed this by introducing Linux training programmes in academic institutions and enabling partners to provide Linux training here in Singapore."