September 19, 2008

Opening Up a New Way of Operating


OPEN SOURCE, downloadable software has historically been treated with suspicion by business whose loyalty was bought - at huge price - by corporate producers of neatly shrink-wrapped, slickly marketed products with their comforting promises of on-call advice whenever you hit a glitch.

The idea that any serious business could run on the back of a free package developed by two geeks in a garage was unthinkable. Until now.

Because the reality for many firms is that systems are changing so rapidly and the cost of upgrades is so great, that any alternative to the monopolistic hold Microsoft has over them has to be considered.

Bill Gates' recent announcement that support would no longer be available for Microsoft's ubiquitous OS XP, in order to force a global switch to Vista, could have been the last straw.

That's what computer experts on open source software at Teesside University are hoping.

They've been concerned for some time that businesses facing assault on all sides from the credit crunch are not making the most of what have become sophisticated, reliable, cheap software solutions available over the internet.

More than capable of supporting almost any business operation - from enterprise resource planning (ERP) to customer relationship management (CRM) and finite element planning, as well as more routine chores like payroll and inventory control - the majority can be introduced without disrupting the entire company and causing a nervous breakdown in the IT department.

"The root cause is failure of imagination.

Companies just don't know what open source can do," says Dr Alan Jones, who heads up the computer school.

That and an allergy to risk.

"A lot of the reason why companies do not adopt open source are risk related - they think they won't be able to open an Office document ever again, or that they need hours of training," says Tim Brunton, tutor and the school's business development manager. "There are plenty of companies out there who could download Star Office, for example, and install it without any problem."

Alerting Teesside companies to this software sweetie shop and helping them integrate packages into their current systems, forms the basis of the School's bid to regional development agency One NorthEast.

The School recently asked Teesside firms to help support its application to run a graduate consultancy service for businesses, which could lead to a more formal Knowlege Transfer Partnership (KTP) between various departments and private enterprise.

"Working with these companies will allow us to identify what training or what investment they need - although we believe a lot of them will not need any investment," says Tim.

And that's because the majority of open source products are free.

IBM has called it the "commoditisation of service" and an entire new academic discipline known as services sciences - which is revealing fascinating new trends in business working - is growing up around it.

As a result, IBM has piled into the open source arena alongside Oracle and other major players.

"The division in IT businesses now is Microsoft on one side and everybody else on the other," says Alan.

"They are currently suffering from the angst of every hi-tech company. The thing that keeps Microsoft executives awake at night is not the current product, or even the next. It's the one after that."

And the prospect of that going head to head with equally capable, free rivals is a nightmare scenario. The only thing that prevented them from waking up in a cold sweat in the past was the sure knowledge that Microsoft's service support was superior. But now, even that is being undermined, says Alan.

"Companies think that if they don't have a Microsoft product they will not get the support they need. But that's just untrue. The reality is that if they have a problem with an open source product it will be patched a lot quicker because there's a whole community working on it together who want the respect of their peers.

It's the community itself that makes the software more robust."

Alan believes the emergence of an open source standard driven by demand from customers is their guarantee of a level of reliability.

"This is the era of the consumer," he says.

"People will not buy unless they can plug in to what they have got already."

Go to to take part in the University of Teesside Business School's questionnaire for companies interested in taking part in the open source research programme.

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