Old idea refreshes software domain

Open-source fans cite lower costs, flexibility; Microsoft worried

Open-source software Ñ the kind that users can freely modify and tailor at little cost Ñ is knocking on mainstream America's door after hovering in the nether regions of the market for close to a decade.

Information technology managers whose budgets have been tightened by the recession have taken to it Ñ and it's beginning to race through the market, analysts say.

The backbone of open-source systems Ñ the best known of which is the Linux operating system Ñ are source codes that any programmer can alter because they aren't fenced in by proprietary agreements.

Organizations ranging from large multinational corporations such as Daimler Chrysler to money management firms like Portland-based Columbia Management Co. have gone to open source.

The movement clearly is beginning to worry Microsoft, the world's largest software company, which keeps its software tightly locked in proprietary codes. In its financial reports, the Redmond, Wash., giant has begun listing open source as one of the 'risks' to its business. For years, the company had either dismissed or ignored open source entirely.

'There's a growing maturity of (the open-source) customer base,' said Will Swope, vice president and co-general manager of Intel's Software and Solutions Group.

That maturing is good news for the Portland area, which is an open-source hotbed. For one thing, it's the home to the flourishing Open Source Development Lab, launched in January 2001 with $24 million in seed money from 19 companies, including Intel, IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.

'It used to be that people were just curious about open source,' says Tim Witham, the lab's executive director. 'Now they're saying, 'I've got this business problem, how do I implement a solution?' '

Portland is so open source-friendly that the O'Reilly Open Source Convention ÑÊregarded by programmers as the pre-eminent event in the field ÑÊwill take place here July 7-11.

The evolution of open source from a curiosity to legitimacy is being driven by both its flexibility and the savings it offers in licensing fees.

Because open-source software allows programmers full access and rights to tweak the 'source code,' users can quickly and inexpensively tailor systems to meet changing needs, its advocates say.

'It's fostered some very creative and highly useful tools and applications,' says Intel's Swope.

Operating systems such as Microsoft Windows, by contrast, can only be changed by licensed programmers privy to Microsoft's proprietary code.

The open-source movement also has touched off a battle in Oregon's Legislature. Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-central Lane and Linn counties, introduced the 'open source bill' earlier this month to encourage the state to opt for the open-source alternative when investing in information technology.

'Since we're going to be buying a lot of software anyway, I wanted to make changes that allow for the best bang for the buck, as well as allow us to be flexible,' Barnhart said.

As of late last week, the bill had stalled in committee, but Barnhart insists that the measure is anything but dead.

Jim Craven, government affairs manager for the Oregon Council of the American Electronics Association, says the bill isn't necessary.

'The state of Oregon has the authority to consider any kind of software that it wishes to, and if it's interested in purchasing Linux-based systems, it can,' he said.

The Business Software Alliance, a consortium of large technology companies, argues that the measure 'would mandate a preference for non-commercial software and set a dangerous precedent that could have long-term unintended consequences' for the state budget.

The measure's supporters include Michael Rasmussen, a network engineer with Columbia Management, which uses open-source systems to design its internal Web pages and coordinate file sharing.

'It just offers a lot of stability,' Rasmussen said. 'We don't worry about version upgrades killing off what we've developed so far.'