Last week I listened to an IT Conversations podcast with Doc Searls. Doc Searls is a prominent technologist and has one of the most visited blogs on the Internet. He’s also the co-author of a popular book called The Cluetrain Manifesto. The interview with him was interesting.
One of his recent campaigns is “Do-it-Yourself IT (Information Technology)” or “DIY-IT”. The idea is that with open-source software, you can build whatever solution you need because all the pieces are commodities.
For the uninitiated, the largest division of any kind in the software industry is between the camps of “open-source” software and proprietary software. For example, Apache is an open-source web server; Linux is an open-source operating system. Conversely, Microsoft IIS is a proprietary web server; Microsoft Windows is a proprietary operating system. As you can tell, proprietary software is the kind backed by large companies and heavily marketed. On the other hand, you may have never heard of Apache or Linux, or of “open source” in general; open-source software is the kind developed by informal groups of programmers in an ad-hoc manner. Proprietary software is built from the top down in a hierarchical manner, while open-source software is built in a grassroots manner.
Returning to the interview, Doc Searls says that open-source software is particularly well suited to become a commodity; it can be mixed and matched in pieces because it is not controlled by a single company and is usually free. Kind of like Lincoln logs. Contrast that with Microsoft’s philosophy of trying to provide every solution you might ever need (as best they can imagine) and charging you for every piece. Kind of like Lego. Legos may be more flashy and fun than Lincoln logs, but if you don’t have the piece you need, you have to buy it at a premium, or do without. And don’t try to get the piece from a competitor; Lego insists that you not use interlocking blocks from anyone but them.
As Doc Searls put it, in the home construction industry we never talk about building a “Home Depot” house or a “Sears” house. We simply get lumber, nails, and whatever pieces are necessary to do the job, from the store that is most convenient or has the best price. Doc envisions a time when Information Technology will go that way.
During the interview, the host Doug Kaye commented that open-source software usually comes into organizations through the backdoor — through IT employees or users, not generally through management. That has been the case at the medical office where I have worked as IT manager. While business or trade magazines they might read are full of Microsoft ads, almost no one there had heard of Mozilla Firefox. I switched several of our computers from Internet Explorer to Firefox, hoping to avoid plagues of spyware that are so easy to contract when you browse with Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, there’s always some aversion to trying something new, and some of the other software we use, like our punch-card software, requires Internet Explorer. Notwithstanding, I’ll keep pushing Firefox.
The other open-source technology I introduced to the medical office is PHP. I don’t think anyone in the office would know we’re using it (nor do they need to know), but we use PHP to create a daily report of which of our patients may have passed away. Each morning my PHP program compares the Review-Journal‘s obituary page against our patient database, looking for matches. It then emails any matches to an employee who can then close the file and send out a condolences letter. As a medical practice, it’s embarrassing to unknowingly send mail or a bill to a deceased person’s family, yet there was no systematic way of tracking this before. You would certainly never find any “obituary tracking software” in a Microsoft ad.
And no doubt there’s a way to solve this problem with Microsoft technologies (ASP?), but PHP was the right solution for us because I already knew PHP, PHP is free, and PHP integrated perfectly into our environment. (It even connects to the patient database that’s running on Microsoft SQL Server, and it can send email through our Microsoft Exchange server.) Having to learn a new Microsoft technology or having to pay for something extra were barriers that PHP didn’t have.
We also use PHP to run our wiki-based intranet.
Finally, Phil Windley touches the same subject by asking “Does Your Platform Matter?” He argues that an open-source platform (specifically the “LAMP stack”) scales better. I would tend to agree. I think open-source technologies are great building blocks for innovation, and the skies are the limit. While Microsoft asks “Where do you want to go today?”, open-source says, “here are the keys to the car. Have a ball.”