The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) had no problem going against the grain when it decided to forgo the widely used Microsoft Office suite of business applications. Instead, it chose to replace its aging WordPerfect installations with OpenOffice.org - for free.
Yes, there was a clear financial motive: By steering clear of Office 2007 and installing OpenOffice.org for its 100-plus users, the CLC saved an estimated $60,000 in licensing fees. "But it's not just about the money," says Andrew Southworth, the network technician responsible for all IT services at the CLC. In fact, says Mr. Southworth, the philosophy and principles behind open source software also struck a chord with the CLC and aligns with its community-based activities.
Free/libre/open-source software (FLOSS) - or simply "open source software" - has long since evolved beyond a grassroots social movement started by idealistic software programmers who refer to large proprietary software makers collectively as "The Man." But are companies any more willing to adopt open source software nowadays than they were a decade ago?
To proponents of open source, it's not just about the source code that's freely available to the general public. For many adopters, it's about freedom. Open source represents minimizing dependence on large software companies that generally prevent users from changing or adapting their products, either by keeping the source code secret or by strict copyright rules. It also allows for greater flexibility and control over customization.
But fear and doubt remain major impediments to wider adoption of open source software, explains Mike Gifford, president of Ottawa-based open source web development firm OpenConcept Consulting Inc.
"Downloading and installing [open source] software is 'scary' after all," says Mr. Gifford, who also volunteers his time as an OpenOffice.org marketing representative seeking to raise awareness of its open source office suite. Most people, he says, will use proprietary software preinstalled on workstations and servers and make the best of it.
The CLC wanted to avoid falling into that trap. Mr. Southworth was concerned about the long-term accessibility of documents used within the CLC.
He was reluctant to have the organization bound to a particular vendor and its propriety file formats. Choosing Office 2007 would leave the future of the CLC's documents in the hands of Microsoft's development cycle. OpenOffice.org's transparency and inherent support for the open standard-based OpenDocument file format allayed his concerns.
"I need to think beyond today [and consider] tomorrow's needs," Mr. Southworth says. "While Microsoft is touting its own open format, we in the IT field know that Microsoft is in the business of selling software, not document management. So the question for me was not 'why OpenOffice.org?' but 'why Microsoft?' "
Despite the freedom open source software offers application developers and users, there's one important caveat: You have to know what you're doing, and you have to have the resources with which to do it.
Prescient Digital Media, a Toronto-based Internet and intranet consulting and development firm, was able to combine its in-house IT expertise with the services of a freelance developer to build its corporate website using the open source content management system, Plone.
It was a move that saved the company between $10,000 and $20,000.
"The software is absolutely free. The catch is that you still have to customize and configure it yourself," says Toby Ward, president of Prescient Digital Media.
But not everyone has the resources or the skills to carry out this type of development.
"When something goes wrong with an open source application, you either have to have someone internally with extensive programming experience or wait for someone in the volunteer community to help," says Tim Dorey, founder and president of Windsor-based Vialect Inc, the makers of intraNET.
Mr. Dorey admits that open source software has its place, but he cautions that he has seen too many open source projects peak and then fade away after the community loses interest or loses members.
But that won't stop open source software proponents. In addition to using an open source solution for its own website, Prescient Digital Media has begun incorporating open source portal and content management system products such as Joomla! and Liferay on client projects.