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In-fighting a threat to free software

By   |  July 30, 2007

In-fighting within the open source community needs to stop or risk further alienating companies, attendees at the Cape IT Initiative’s (CITI) FOSS event heard last week. 

Nathan Momsen of Business Data Solutions (BDS) believes that infighting between various distributions has negatively affected the uptake of open source software in local, provincial and national government.

Speaking on behalf of the City of Cape Town, Momsen said the plethora of [1]Linux[/1] distributions available can be overwhelming to any IT manager looking to implement a new solution. 

He said he believes that the open source community should be supportive of any implementation that moves an organisation away from proprietary software. He also highlighted the need for more local solutions suitable to the African circumstance, rather than just trying to transplant global solutions that are network intensive and rely on de facto broadband capacity.

Momsen said that the City of Cape Town had invested more in open source than any other department in the country. He said that through initiatives such as the Smart Access project and other public access projects the City knows more about its citizens than any other municipal region.

The purpose of the FOSS Forum was to inform companies in Cape Town how to structure their development and pricing models to gear up for profitable growth. Linux industry stalwart and Obsidian Systems founder, Anton de Wet, spoke of the benefits of creating a bazaar like environment in which to do business.

"By creating a bazaar-like environment there is more space for the smaller companies to play in. However, we should guard against competing on price alone. Undercutting affects the entire industry and the quality of support will suffer as a result. Companies should rather be competing on service offerings and find niche solutions that they can specialise in," De Wet said. 

He also pointed to his own experience in building a profitable company and suggested that companies look for skills that are not only technical. "The seventh person we hired wasn’t a geek. Companies need someone to tell people about the benefits of open source and that is why marketing is so important. You can’t change a techie into a business person, you need to find the right business skills and let them get on with the job of growing your business." He also advised companies to turn to fellow open source SMEs for help, rather than trying to do everything themselves – an all too common failing in the open source community, he said. 

Tectonic‘s editor-at-large, Jason Norwood-Young, wrapped up the morning with his look at the current "partisan politics in software". Norwood-Young said that the growing animosity and action from proprietary vendors may be a direct result of the militant attitude of some in the open source community.

"Open source’s greatest ideal is freedom: freedom to innovate; freedom to choose; freedom to make the best technology decision; freedom to change technologies as needs change. The growing animosity restricts these freedoms," he warned.

He believes the partisan nature of the software industry causes people to make decisions based on their political leanings and not on what is best of breed. The disparate formats and fights over standards are also impeding users’ freedom of choice.

Norwood-Young predicted that this "cold war" state of affairs would get worse before it got better. He also warned that companies may end up firing developers and hiring lawyers as patent infringement dodging became a business necessity. 

"All of this is making open source the victim of its own success. What we need is neo-liberals – to the left, but not too far. We need companies to take their freedoms back, consider all technical options and at least get open source into their labs for a good round of tyre kicking before they make their choice. The irony of the present climate is that the chance of success is threatening to tear the movement apart."

The Cape IT Initiative’s FOSS Forum next meets on Thursday August 2 to continue its work of creating a FOSS business hub in Cape Town as well as advocating FOSS in the region. Up for discussion will be the alarming amount of proprietary based contracts being awarded by provincial government despite viable FOSS alternatives existing.

For more information regarding the Forum please contact Bronwen Kausch at


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