Linux, we have a PR problem

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A few weeks ago a former boss and mentor of mine made my jaw drop by asking me, "Why has open source failed?".

I don't agree with him for a second that it has - open source is becoming pervasive, which is the only reason fiercely proprietary companies like Microsoft are starting to make approaches to the open source community. But his comment drove home for me that one of the biggest barriers open source faces is a plain old PR problem.

Open source software and licensing revolutionised the IT industy by breaking the proprietary lock on software code, opening it up to be customised and improved by any developer. Customers like being able to customise their software and being able to avoid vendor lock-in. Software developers love being able to code in a community where you can create improvements and features never dreamed of by a program's original creator. And it's a viral system of development and improvement -- as the mantra goes "many eyes make all bugs shallow".

So what is the state of play with open source? It was revealed only last week that 15 percent of industry giant Google's active code base is the open source language Python. And according to a recent report, the US Army is working towards moving all of its networks over to Linux. And way back in 1999, IT security expert Bruce Schneier said "In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades."

The penetration of open source depends on which segment of the industry you talk to. In the server arena, open source is a leading or major player. Most web servers across the world run on Apache web servers, and it's estimated that in the server market, over a quarter of installations are running a flavour of Linux. The majority of the world's largest data centres are Linux shops, and they'll spend billions on servers this year.

At the desktop level the story isn't as grand. While desktop use of open source is less than one percent, this has been predicted to double this year. And with market penetration approaching 25 percent, open source browser Firefox is gradually eroding Internet Explorer's lead in the browser market.

So how is it that even senior members of the IT sector can still be operating under the impression that open source has failed? This signals a big PR failure, not a technology failure. The visibility of open source is lagging way behind its capabilities. Despite being several decades old, open source and open licensing still needs proving to the market.

We'll soon see moves in Australia and globally to tackle this PR problem. Next month we'll see the results of the first Australian Open Source Industry and Community Census - a survey undertaken to find out about the organisations using open source, and the developers working on it. The study was funded by NICTA, and carried out by open source consultancy Waugh Partners.

Jeff Waugh says the census will provide much needed hard numbers about the use of open source in the field - which he hopes will in turn bust some myths about open source and pave the way for greater use of open source technology in Australia.

"What Pia and I have found in our efforts to grow the industry and nurture the community is that anecdotal evidence only gets us so far," he said.

"We have a pretty good feeling for how all these things work and how many companies there are in the industry, but what we really wanted was some hard numbers. So we could go to government and go to business and tell them what's really going on."

Waugh also hopes that information from the census will encourage universities and TAFEs to get open source into their IT courses. Bridge building into the education sector is already having some effect. We can expect to see more and more universities (pushed towards cheaper open source computing by budgeting cutbacks) teaching it because it's what they know and what industry wants.

But today in Australia uptake is being held back because many organisations don't know enough about open source to realise what it can do. It used to be you didn't get fired for buying IBM - more recently it was Windows. But those days are numbered - organisations keen to be flexible and cost effective must now explore other options and open source is an established and robust alternative.

Right now the invisibility of open source across the general community is a problem. This lack of visibility will hurt open source far more than any technological barriers preventing people from using it. Open source companies who aren't focusing on educating the market are shooting themselves in the foot.

Sarah Stokely is the editor of The Open Source Report, a news and blog website devoted to reporting on the trends, technology and community behind open source software.
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