Many of you know that I am actively engaged in free / open source software. I first discovered this area in 1992 while I was an undergrad. Of course, I'd used shareware (programs that you could try for free, but you were expected to pay if you continued to use them) on MS-DOS for years. While a student, I used As-Easy-As (a shareware spreadsheet program) and Galaxy Write (a shareware word processor) for working on papers and analyzing my lab data. Our computer labs used SunOS and VAX, and the administrator provided free software tools such as emacs (a programmer's editor) and gcc (a free compiler) for us to use. I found these to be the same high quality as the shareware programs I'd used.
In 1993, I heard about a new operating system that could replace MS-DOS on my computer. This new system was called "Linux", and was built from free software (the term open source software hadn't been coined yet). All the tools we used on the SunOS systems were present in Linux, so I gave it a go. Suddenly, I had the same power of a SunOS workstation on my home computer. No more late-night trips to the computer lab!
But it wasn't just about getting a free ride. For me, the real benefit of free software was that you had access to the source code. If you had the interest and the skill, you could modify the programs to do exactly what you wanted. If you found a bug in a program, you could fix it. If you needed a new feature that would improve the program, you could do that yourself. And over time, I did make a few improvements here and there, and shared my changes with the people who maintained those programs. Some of my changes even made it into future versions of the programs.
Such was my interest in this new way of using software that I created my own free operating system. In 1994, Microsoft announced that their next version of Windows would completely replace MS-DOS. I still used MS-DOS to do a few things (I needed As-Easy-As to do my lab analysis, for example) and didn't want to see DOS go away. So I started work to create a free version of DOS, which later became FreeDOS.
I've continued to use free / open source ever since. Much of the time, I prefer to use Linux as my desktop. But even when I'm using Windows or MacOSX, I like to use Chrome and Firefox - both are open source software (Chrome is built on the open source browser, Chromium). I'm not exclusive, however; I'll use tools and programs as they suit my needs.
So I was interested to see the latest digital issue of Campus Technology and their article about "7 questions to ask open source vendors." I can't find a link directly to the article, but you can find it in the digital issue on their website.
In short, the article discusses how tight budgets are pressuring IT directors to think outside the commercial software paradigm. Many are now considering open source software for the first time. The article makes these recommendations for what to look for when selecting an open source program, and an open source vendor, for your enterprise:
- Is there a rich ecosystem around the software?
- What type of governance structure does the open source project utilize?
- How active is the vendor in the open source community?
- What are the licensing options, and what are the exit costs?
- How flexible is the vendor?
- How engaged will the vendor be with IT staff?
- Which charges are additional?
The article does a good job of discussing the issues, so I won't expand on them here. However, I may return to this topic to share my own thoughts, based on my personal experience in working with open source software. For more, you can find related posts on my FreeDOS blog.