Keeping an Open Mind on Open Source

Editor’s note: None of our recent editorials have generated as many responses as those concerning open-source software. In response to “Free the Code,” which appeared in the March 13 issue, James W. Kilgore filed this rebuttal.

Open source for the AS/400. How can "something for nothing" possibly work in the real world? Frank Hecker, (a key contributor in the Netscape decision to open-source Communicator) writes: "... this strategy may seem counter-intuitive or even self-destructive; it goes against years of tried and true commercial software practices. However, these are unusual times in the commercial software industry, and may call for unusual measures. ... A move to more of an open-source business model is not simply a tactical move to solve a particular business problem, but rather can be part of an overall strategy to change the rules of competition in your market space and perhaps in the software industry as a whole."

These words have ominous implications to the existing ERP providers. Progressive Data Systems Inc. has been such an ERP provider since 1977, employing dozens of programmers, analysts and technical writers to further its market. Some of our clients have been with us since our beginning when we were writing applications for the System/32. With plenty of experience following the classic business model, making a move to open-source our ERP suite was not a decision made lightly.

Would the world be interested in such a product? Would anyone be willing to sign on to this project? The very same day I posted the original proposal, the “Can I join?” e-mails started to arrive—not only from the U.S. and Canada, but Japan, Paraguay, Australia and the United Kingdom.

It was time to dive in, and Open Source/400 was established and incorporated as a nonprofit educational and research organization to coordinate the groups efforts. The goal of an open-source project is to relegate the software to a commodity status.

Open Source/400 is taking Mr. Hecker’s words to heart, and within five weeks of its inception over 50 AS/400 professionals exchanged 1,000 e-mails discussing the finer details of this open-source ERP project. In the open-source model, it is the power of peer review that brings quality and reliability to a software product. We concur with opensource.org when they state, "Even a small open-source project can muster more brains to improve a piece of software than most development shops can possibly afford."

Eric S. Raymond (the founder of the open-source Fetchmail project) states in The Magic Cauldron “An entirely sufficient case for open-source development rests on its engineering and economic outcomes—better quality, higher reliability, lower costs and increased choice.”

ERP is a complicated suite of applications that requires installation assistance, training and customization. Having an open-source ERP does not change these needs. WyattERP, and it’s companion documentation tool, docHolliday, will create business opportunities for support organizations and an additional product choice for the users of the AS/400.

With the availability of a product such as WyattERP, there will be a shift in focus. Software companies will have to genuinely deal with support and services to effectively compete against a company that does not have the overhead cost of writing and maintaining an ERP suite. Sadly, too many providers of "for fee" software forget about support or service once that license fee check has been cashed. Competition will be centered on which provider can support their AS/400 clients’ needs best.

Business opportunities also exist for providers of industry specialized distributions of WyattERP. Both support and service providers and users will have the ability to modify and enhance WyattERP in ways that are impossible in the closed model. They will not merely be adding on to an application through APIs, but altering the application at the core level if need be.

It is through these support organizations, either internal or outsourced, that problems encountered will be addressed. The user is no longer at the mercy of a single point of support. They gain a whole world of other users and developers to aid them.

While the real cost of an ERP suite is the ongoing costs, the savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars in initial acquisition or development costs is not to be ignored. These savings go directly to a company's bottom line. WyattERP brings with it the availability of hundreds of talented developers, at no cost. And that’s nothing to sneeze at either.

The mere existence of the Internet attests to the fact that open-source products can be as, if not more, reliable than their closed counterparts. From opensource.org: "The foundation of the business case for open source is high reliability. Open-source software is peer-reviewed software; it is more reliable than closed, proprietary software. Mature open-source code is as bulletproof as software ever gets."

The entire Internet was built upon open-source software. The Web browser you use may be the result of an open-source product, as well as your e-mail client. The majority of servers that keep the Internet running, keep on humming because of open-source software. The newest phenomenon to the media and Wall Street is the Linux operating system. Linux is not new, only the intense interest is new.

What is new, is an open-source project for the AS/400—WyattERP. Is that the sound of hooves gathering speed off in the distance? The posse is growing daily and there’s a new Marshal coming to town. Look for him this summer.

James W. Kilgore is president of Progressive Data Systems Inc. of Puyallup, Wash., an AS/400 application design firm, and a driving force behind Open Source/400 (www.opensource400.org (new window)).

Related Editorial:

  • WyattERP: Showdown at the Open Source Corral?