It takes but the first corn to go pop before the rest in the popping machine join in. Open Source Software seems to be exerting that kind of pull..

Today, more and more product company CXOs are looking at how to work with OSS.

M. Ramesh

It is such a pleasure to watch a pop corn machine at work.

First the corns stare back at you with defiant resistance as they swirl round the vessel. Then, perhaps as the temperature inside the vessel reaches a certain point'pop' goes one corn. Then another one, 'pop', and then another. In no time - as though due to peer pressure - the corns go pop, pop, pop, their recalcitrance yielding place to total surrender to the gourmet's taste buds.

Lavanya Rastogi, an Open Source guru, likens the adoption of open source software to popcorn making.

Rastogi is the Co-founder and Chief Mentor of OSS Cube, a global Open Source software development company with expertise in outsourced product development based in North Carolina, US. Each time Rastogi takes a look at India, he only finds more corn going pop.

Defies logic, doesn't it? Well, you don't have to live in 221B Baker St to know that what mocks logic is short-lived. You may still not find many people rooting for Ubuntu for their laptops, but the shift towards open source is palpable.

While we are not quite at the tipping point, we are cruising towards it.

More opportunity than threat

Ask any open source evangelist, he will tell you that the OSS market is exploding — and it is true. Almost all large job and travel portals, news sites, social media sites run either almost or totally on OSS.

However, how often do you see, say, a Rs 100-crore auto components or pharma company going in for open source ERP or CRM product?

Nobody seems to have the numbers, but there are not many for sure. The OSS market is so fragmented, there are no reliable estimates, or indeed even metrics, and a measure of open source penetration is at best a guess. But a good one, though. One clear indication of the direction is the discernible shift in the attitude of proprietary software companies towards OSS. Microsoft used to say OSS is not really all that cheap, remember? Now all that insouciance has melted into a reverent recognition of the force of open source. Microsoft is now flashing its'We are open' badge' (see eWorld dated October 4, 2010).

The recognition has caused a morphing of strategy from compete to collaborate. Today, more and more product company CXOs are looking at how to work with OSS. "Open source technology product only increases the options for application software companies," says Kamesh Ramamoorthy, COO of the Chennai-based Ramco Systems, an ERP product company. "Now, we can have applications running on open source operating systems such as Linux and open source databases such as MySQL. It is more of an opportunity than threat," he says.

Many product companies seem to concur with him. "It is but a matter of time that the centralised models of software development much prevalent in commercial software companies will be challenged by open source," says H.R. Srinivasan, Founder and Vision Holder of Take Solutions, which sells SCM and Life Sciences software.

The'matter of time' is a key phrase. When will India reach the tipping point? Experts point to a few challenges. The biggest is that of awareness. Venkat Mangudi, who runs an OSS consultancy from Bangalore, recalls a recent chat with some final year MCA students in Coimbatore. "They did not know what'open source' meant," says Mangudi. "While all of them are learning programming languages such as C sharp and the web framework dot net, none of them is exposed to languages such as PHP, which powers Facebook or Ruby, which powers Basecamp."

Mangudi feels that the idea that OSS is a far less expensive, flexible, viable alternative to proprietary products is yet to be fully internalised by CIOs. There is still a thwarting fear of the unknown, partly because companies such as Microsoft once used to stress that while you might get yourself an inexpensive open source product, who is going to service you? Today, there are companies such as Venkat Mangudi Consulting Pvt Ltd that have built a business around servicing open source products, but there aren't many of them and not many know of even those that are there.

For the ecosystem to develop, someone has to invest the money to build it. In a commercial market the software vendor provides the thrust and initial funding to grow this ecosystem. He also invests in selling the product and ensuring that there is a steady supply of customers for the market/ecosystem. "In the case of OSS, there is no vendor. No commercial'sale'. So the ecosystem has to build itself," says Mangudi.

While the point is that the ecosystem is under-developed, it is not to say that it is not developing. The ecosystem will indeed build itself, if only because there is money to be made for a company to be a part of the ecosystem, although the'core' product is free. People pay for services such as installation, training and de-bugging.

There are models where there is a free'community edition' of a product, but the more advanced versions are priced. Typically, the advanced versions come with killer features that are important to serious users who do not mind paying a bit more.'Sugar CRM' is cited as an example of this product.

Awaits booster shot

Rastogi believes the development of the ecosystem is an issue of time. "It has not been many years since killer apps on OSS such as Content Management or Document Management, CRM or collaborations matured…so it is not really late," he says. The ecosystem is maturing very fast, but it awaits a booster shot from a'killer app', "just like the'email' or'search' for the Internet once, and the'social media' today."open source products, but there aren't many of them and not many know of even those that are there.

In the absence of a robust ecosystem, companies that are aware and keen on open source adoption are hampered by the lack of direction as to how to go about it. Rastogi points to the example of a large insurance company that wanted to go for open source products but didn't because it didn't know how to go about it. Then it got an ex-Intel on its rolls and that recruitment is driving the company towards OSS.

Once help is available, the choice is clear. Take, for instance, Pratham Books of Bangalore, which shipped one million children's books last year. For Gautam John of Pratham Books, an open source fan himself, the availability of Venkat Mangudi Consultant at hand was a source of comfort. Pratham Books chose Opentaps ERP solution less to save costs and more to take advantage of its flexibility. "We didn't want to be tied in with one vendor," says John. Incidentally, Pratham has Ubuntu on thirty of its desktops. Though the company saved at least Rs 2.5 lakh in (Microsoft) licences, it finds another advantage more valuable: "no viruses". Open source OS is said to be attack-proof.

Cruising to tipping point

So, there you are. Battling barriers such as lack of awareness and under-developed ecosystem, OSS in India is looking like a laden truck climbing a steep hill, but just wait until it crosses over the peak - the tipping point - it will just whizz through the rest of the journey. Rastogi, for one, is sure of this. He explains the inevitability of OSS like this: "Typically the full software stack changes with generation of hardware. Therefore, as more and more applications move to the Internet and the cloud where it does not matter what access device or operating system you use, the adoption of OSS tools and solutions will also reach a critical mass. The Internet is democratising the applications space much more for OSS specially when it comes to penetrating the "old guard" of banking, insurance, automotive, healthcare and related sectors."

Does all this mean that death is staring in the face of commercial software? No, no, not at all. Product companies will thrive either by collaborating with open source, as Kamesh Ramamoorthy of Ramco noted, or by occupying comfortable and profitable niches.

"I don't see a company that is putting up a large power project choosing Opentaps for ERP in preference to SAP or Oracle," says V.K. Murthi, Senior Vice-President, at Bahwan CyberTek, a $100-million software company based in Chennai. Although we have examples such as Life Insurance Corporation of India or government of Kerala, nobody predicts the demise of the likes of SAP.

The onward march of open source software will be to the point of OSS getting its rightful due in the market space and not gobble up the entire market. OSS is not a panacea but its becoming a standard item on all CTOs' agenda rather than remaining a "good to have" is a cinch.

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