A round of applause for Pink Software
On 7 July 2003, local software development house Pink Software took one of the boldest moves yet in the South African software development scene and announced that they were going to re-license their flagship commercial product, TurboCash, under the GNU GPL. The move effectively turned TurboCash into an open source offering, meaning that it would be freely available for all to download, modify and redistribute without paying any licensing fees.
A decision like this is definitely not easy for a successful software development house to make, but rather a massive leap of faith embracing a very different kind of future business model – one that can either result in resounding success, or horrible disappointment, depending on how the transition process and newly opened product is managed.
In this article I would like to delve into this topic a little further and discuss the motivation for making a closed source product open source, what the change realistically means to the both the developer and the consumer, as well as some of the points to take note of.
Why go open source?
While TurboCash is the first South African software application of note to transition from closed source to open source, it certainly isn\’t unique internationally – several companies have ventured down this path before with as many different reasons for doing so. While specific motivation depends largely on the environment surrounding the company and the product, there are some fairly generic motivators for going open source:
Harness the power of volunteer developers
The Internet is big, really big. When you expose your product to so many people, chances are you\’re going to have quite a few developers adding features to your product in order to produce a better version for themselves. When you sum all these individual enhancements, the result is a massive, unpaid development team. These open source developers will assist in developing and evolving your product at a rate far quicker than what can be achieved in a regular, financially constrained closed source environment.
Expand into untapped markets
If you are a producing a software product for a particular geographical region or market, one of the easiest ways to expand into other markets is to develop your product using an open source model. The Internet provides easy distribution into those markets; open source users in those markets provide you with essential feedback and requirements analysis and open source developers may even complete all the hard work of customising the product for that target market.
Grow company credibility
A large, satisfied and supportive user base performs wonders for company credibility. By taking a local software product and successfully making it open source, you\’d grow your user base immensely and turn your locally company / product into an international recognised brand.
Breathe life into a dying project
Unfortunately not all software efforts are successful. Rather than decide to store your source code in a vault somewhere and never allow it to touch a hard drive again, why not rather release it as open source? The results may surprise you…
So what does it mean to the software vendor?
The change from closed to open source for a software vendor entails a fundamental shift in that vendor\’s business strategy. With an open source software product, a vendor can no longer rely on revenue generated from selling the product. Rather than focusing on the product itself, vendors need to focus on selling the support services around the product: give the product away for free but sell the manuals, boxed sets, media packs, training, customisation, support, etc.
Although revenue initially decreases because of reduces sales, the cost saving from harnessing open source developers as well as the increased revenue from selling services to a much broader audience should result in increased revenue.
The process of converting a piece of software to open source isn\’t always easy, take note of the following:
Ensure that the development platform is open source
If you want volunteer developers to contribute to your project, ensure that the development toolkit is freely available. It\’s senseless releasing an product as open source that has been built using an expensive proprietary development environment or dependant on an expensive proprietary database. People won\’t contribute to the project because the tools required to do so are out of reach.
Remember, the community steers the software now, not you
This is an extremely important point. In order to successfully manage an open source project you need to be responsive to your developer community. In open source development, a concept called \’forking\’ exists, whereby a single project forks off into two different development streams. Should you not manage your project properly, there is always the risk of your project forking, where the community takes over management of a new stream of development, possibly developing at a rate faster than the original project. You know you\’re managing your project fairly well when there aren\’t any hints of forking.
Keep the communication channels open
The Internet is the medium for open source collaboration. In order to keep your open source community informed of what\’s happening on the project, you need to make extensive use of Internet communication channels such as websites, email, mailing lists, wiki\’s, etc. If you fund any core development, ensure that your developers communicate using the mailing list rather than verbally.
Release early, release often
Referred to as the \’open source mantra\’, best results are achieved when working versions are frequently released with a limited number of changes inbetween.
So what does it mean for the consumer?
Firstly, you don\’t have to pay license fees anymore if you don\’t want to. If you believe you have sufficient resources in-house to support and maintain the software installation, then you\’ll take advantage of all the continued updating of the product without every having to pay licensing fees again. If you couldn\’t afford to obtain the product previously, now you can.
For those of you still requiring support and maintenance contracts, you can look forward to improved service and support. Given that the product is available for free, vendors will have to ensure that their service is of the highest quality, service is what they\’re selling after all. Given that the product is open source and freely distributable, nothing stops an outside software vendor from also becoming intimately familiar with the product and selling alternative support services.
Finally, by using open source software you can sleep soundly knowing that you\’re not been locked into any defined technology. Because the software is open source, the format in which your data is stored is always known. Should you which to change to any other product in the future, it\’s a relatively simple process to retrieve your data from the current system.
I\’m really proud of Pink Software for being the first noteworthy software development house to embrace and test an open source development model. While open source business models have been adopted quite extensively extensively overseas, they have yet to come to the fore in South Africa. TurboCash is already quite a mature application with the potential of being a phenomenal open source application, as well as a landmark piece of software for South Africa. Will they get it right? – I certainly hope so, if they follow the points above they should. I wait with eager anticipation…
Thomas Black is the open source program manager for the Shuttleworth Foundation. He has a background in Computer Science and Information Systems with a B.Sc. Degree from Stellenbosch University.