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28 February 2008, 09:11

Who benefits from open source code?

Dr. Oliver Diedrich

Oliver Diedrich

An essential feature of open source is that users receive the source code with the software. But what are they supposed to do with it? We asked the founders of SugarCRM.

No, we're not talking about open source as a development model. There's already been plenty of lively discussion over whether the "four eyes see better than two" principle, quicker and more frequent publication of code, the discussions within the developer community and the involvement of potential users in the development process ultimately produce better software. The arguments are well known and were explored by Eric S. Raymond in his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar as much as ten years ago. It remains the case, however, that a definitive answer has not yet been forthcoming.

Much more interesting is the question of how end users benefit from open source code and the right to examine and change it. In theory, open source gives companies the freedom to adapt software to their purposes as they see fit. In practice, however, open source vendors and distributors supply pre-compiled binaries which most customers use as is [-] without rummaging around in the source code.

John Roberts, co-founder and CEO of SugarCRM
John Roberts, co-founder and CEO of SugarCRM
What sounds so great in theory [-] fix the odd bug here, add the odd useful feature there [-] is likely to fail in practice due to the sheer complexity of the software. MySQL 5, for example, consists of more than 700,000 lines of C code. Who's going to "just make a couple of minor modifications" in that? And do companies really want to be playing around with the code for a live database? Not to mention that hardly any open source vendors or distributors are able to offer support for patched versions.

Despite this, John Roberts, CEO and one of the founders of SugarCRM is convinced that open source does offer benefits to the user. Just the ability to be able to gain an impression of how the software has been developed by following the open development process and taking a look at the source code is for many SugarCRM customers an argument for open source. And the user, according to Roberts, appreciates not being at the mercy of the vendor when it comes to fixing bugs. If the vendor won't play ball, there's always the option of trying to find and fix the bug yourself [-] or getting someone else to do it for you.

SugarCRM co-founder and GM Europe Clint Oram adds that bug reports from customers frequently come in the form, "There's a bug in line 500 in module X." Users with the necessary know-how can diagnose bugs much more precisely if they can view the source code. More precise bug reports in turn make it easier for the vendor to get to the bottom of an error quickly – meaning less work for the vendor and quicker fixes for the customer.

Clint Oram, co-founder and GM Europe
Clint Oram, co-founder and GM Europe
And at what point do customers start to add to code? That occurs primarily with interfaces for connecting the CRM system to other applications, explains Oram. Additional options which the SugarCRM development team haven't thought of are occasionally required – and some customers who are familiar with these interfaces from the opposite side add these themselves.

In addition, says Roberts, in some industries CRM applications are crucial competitive tools. Such companies may also wish to carry out substantial extensions to the core functions [-] right up to the point where the SugarCRM code simply acts as a base on which to build a DIY system.

In view of all these possibilities – and other features, such as the low marketing effort – Roberts is convinced that the open source model will become the standard model in the software industry. In his opinion, start up companies developing closed source software will face increasing problems obtaining finance.

Roberts is convinced that in fifteen years time, it will be increasingly difficult even for established suppliers of proprietary software. (odi)

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