Sunday, October 21, 2007

Open Source

I recently received an opinion on Open Source from "outside" of the GIS community, and following Raj's recent post on the Open Source DIVA-GIS, thought it worth repeating:
(Excerpted from a briefing prepared for the inaugural OECS meeting of the Eastern Caribbean Telecommunications Authority (ECTEL))

How can something that is free become a driver of economic diversification? And what does it have to do with the Caribbean?

Free or Open Source Software (FOSS) is free to use, as opposed to proprietary software such as the Microsoft Windows operating system.

With FOSS, if some functionality is lacking, you are allowed to look at the source code and, if you have the skills yourself or know somebody who has them, you can write extensions or enhancements to the program.

You must fulfil one requirement only: send your enhancements back to the original programmer, or to a clearing-house like authority, which will check that your enhancements do not introduce errors or conflict with other parts of the program. After the approval, your code - and this is the beauty of the method - then becomes a part of the whole system, making your enhancement available to anybody who uses the system.

That is the essence of FOSS. Programs are widely available with source codes that can be viewed and changed by almost anybody who wants to.

By applying this methodology, free software is developing and evolving continuously, sometimes through the collaboration of more than 1000 programmers around the globe, creating new software, or improving existing software programs.

So, how do you make money with FOSS?

Income is generated mostly through services related to the software, such as consulting, installation assistance, maintenance, and training. None of these services are free; hence they provide the financial incentive for developing the software further.

And herein lies the financial opportunity for the Caribbean. For two reasons:
  1. By saving money
  2. By creating a service environment based on FOSS systems developed and maintained in the Caribbean
Licenses for so-called proprietary software cost money. Either as a one-time expense at the time of purchase, as recurring costs in the form of maintenance or support agreements, or as updating costs, if the new versions are available and demanded by a changed environment, whether it be new hardware, a new version of the operating system, or data exchange / compatibility issues with other programs or users.

Under FOSS those licensing costs do not exist. As mentioned already, the usage of FOSS systems is free. Hence, in contrast to paying licensing fees to a foreign company without economic impact to the local/regional market, FOSS systems could be used and the saved money would be spent on employing local experts to train, maintain, or enhance the otherwise free software.

In the Caribbean, governments are the largest spenders when it comes to software applications. Hence the way funds, in the form of taxpayers money, grants or loans from international donors, are utilized determines whether a local service industry and expertise can be instigated.

Reducing or eliminating license costs, and building a base of local consultants for future projects and the sustainability of present projects, and - it is to be hoped - reducing development costs, will ensure that more money will remain in the local economy, and thus achieve the goal of increased economic activity in the IT field.

Or, to put it another way, here, saving money does not mean saving money, but spending the same money in areas that contribute to the economical development of the community.

How could this work?

To give an example, let’s assume that one of the Caribbean countries has received funds to establish, let’s say, a Health Information or a School Management System.

The respective Government could utilize those funds by employing a group of local programmers to create a system, which would be released under the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL). The programmers that did the initial work on the system would be paid for their work.

After the system is released to the Government, it would be made available free of charge, as determined by the GNU GPL, to the other Caribbean countries that may have an already up-and-running IT agency with permanently employed skilled programmers, or may have funds to contract local developers who would work on enhancements on the Health or School Management Information System.

In the case of the skills set not being already available, programmers can educate themselves by looking at the source code and therefore will be able to contribute to the constant development of the system.

Since this system was released under the GNU GPL all enhancements must instantly be made available to all other countries evolving into a research and development system of collaborating programmers, trainers, and consultants located around the, region releasing itself from the dependence upon a single source.

Because this proposed method produces software geared to the conditions in the Caribbean it is not difficult to imagine that the same products could work in other countries around the world with similar conditions, thus enabling the export of services and ideas. This in turn would mean more work for local consultants and a chance for local government to contribute to development in other parts of the world.

Correctly-channelled funds can fuel a Caribbean software industry operating within the region and working for the region.


Anonymous said...

So let me get this are give developers/programmers the opportunity to enhance your product for free. Then, these updates are sold? How much of this profit do programmers/developers get?

Vijay said...

Good point. Even programmers have to eat. I think there is room for governments to pay programmers to write programs, then make those programs open source, allowing the community to make use of and further develop the software and encouraging the rise of more and experienced programmers within the society. These can bring more and better software products to fruition, one way or the other, in the future. It's a good alternative to the region CONSTANTLY buying software from external sources.