Silicon Dale

Open Source - The Business Model ?

An unknown American, Bill Gates, invented a new operating system and became the leader of a vast business empire. An unknown Finn, Linus Torvalds, invented a better operating system, but gave it away. Was he crazy ? Why do open source developers give away their code absolutely free ?

Open source software has been around from the earliest days of computing. It has its roots in the honourable academic traditions of open publication, supplemented more recently by the requirements of open government. Thus, in the geosciences, software source code has been published for the last 27 years in the IAMG's second journal Computers and Geosciences, and the source code of software packages such as GeoEas have been distributed widely. Much source code has also been included in books on the subject, such as Harbaugh & Bonham-Carter's Computer Simulation in Geology (1971).

However, in the overtly commercial realm of the mining industry, there is relatively little publicly available open-source software. The major mining software packages are proprietary, and their source code is jealously guarded by the companies that developed them. After all, these companies make their profits (such as they are) by selling the rights to use their software. They would be mad to give away the source of those profits, wouldn't they ?

So are open source developers simply mad ? Or are they altruistic ? Or do they have their heads in the clouds and don't understand the real worth of what they have developed ? The answer - in most cases at least - is none of these. The key is that "open source" doesn't exactly mean "free". Open source software is usually freely downloadable and freely usable. The licence under which it is distributed, usually some version of GPL (General Public Licence) or the GNU public licence, even allows commercial use of the software.

However, there are usually fees applicable as soon as the 'usage' is in a form that is not covered by the public licence. Typically this might be incorporation within some other software system which is then sold commercially. "Free" should be interpreted as "free to use and modify" - in other words, a restricted freedom. Open source developers still hold all the IP rights in their code (in contrast with anything supplied under 'copyleft' which is truly free under all circumstances because it has been placed in the public domain - see ESCA v.17 no.9, 2002 - or software such as Modflow or GeoEas which are freely available under the US Freedom of Information Act). However, open source developers can and do extract payment for their efforts in various ways. They just have a different business model.

IT systems consist of much more than just the programs that are loaded into the computer and process your data. There may be some or all of installation, support, training, customisation, consultancy, associated hardware sales, online services, and more, that go to make up a complete IT solution.

Open source is often taken as synonymous with Linux, but it actually has a much longer history than that, and there are many other products currently being used which are also open source products. For example, the Apache web server (which is probably the most widely used web server software), the Perl and PHP programming languages, and one of the leading database management systems, MySQL. This last is a good example - free to download and use, but if you wish to embed it in another application for redistribution, then a fee is payable. A different business model can be seen in OpenOffice from Sun - a product directly competing with Microsoft Office. This is supplied free as an aid to Sun's hardware sales, and also reinforces Sun's view of the marketplace as a 'services' business rather than a 'software sales' business.

What is the relationship of open source with 'shareware' or 'freeware', two terms which are rather loosely used to refer to low-cost software ? First, the original concept of shareware was that it would be software supplied at no charge but for which a voluntary licence fee could be paid, or a licence fee for commercial use. The term seems to have evolved to mean simply 'low-cost' software, though not all 'shareware' is necessarily low-cost. Freeware generally is free for personal or academic use, but there might be a licence fee payable for commercial use. Open source tends to be freer in the licensing-for-usage sense than either shareware or freeware.

Open source - once the product has attained a critical mass in the marketplace - has one very big advantage over proprietary software. Because the source code is available, there can be many programmers looking at it and working on it. Bugs tend to be identified early in the product cycle. Furthermore, there may well be a stream of add-ons, plugins, and improvements. A result of this is that open source software tends to become more reliable, and have more functionality available, sooner in the development cycle than proprietary software. In particular, of course, vulnerabilities in software with Internet connectivity are identified and fixed sooner, with the result that such software is less prone to virus attacks than proprietary Internet software.

Is there a place for open source in geoscience and in particular mining applications ? Emphatically yes, there certainly is. Already there are well established public domain packages such as GeoEas and Modflow, and plenty of shareware products, leading the way. There seems no reason why there should not be open source systems challenging the bastions of the proprietary mining software companies. This would in my opinion be healthy for the industry, and it could well lead to a completely new model of mining software development. In last month's column I suggested that the 'integrated system' approach of the present generation of mainstream vendors (Surpac, Vulcan, Gemcom, and the rest) might not last much longer. It is possible that niche developments, as plug-ins and add-ons to an open source framework, might be the way of the future.

Stephen Henley
Matlock, England

Copyright © 2003 Stephen Henley
Open Source - The Business Model ?: Earth Science Computer Applications, v.18,no.8