Open Source and Open Standards in E-Commerce

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Introduction

"FIRST they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Mahatma Gandhi was once heard saying these words. They perfectly describe the evolution of open source software (OSS) for the past 15 years. Software created by volunteers and distributed on-line, was initially ignored and no-one was ready to trust the reliability of these software developed by nerds. Questions that arose were; is it secured? What kind of support is available? Who do you have responsible if your program crashes?

OSS is not a new phenomenon. Many large companies have abandoned using proprietary software in favor Open Source Solutions. In fact, it is estimated that currently almost half of all web servers are using Apache, which is an open source software.

According to various definitions, "Open Source Software" is a computer software for which the readable source code is made available to users to use, change and improve the software and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form.

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OSS licensing allows a user to access the source code, modify, use, copy and distribute the software along with the associated rights.

Some of the common open source packages are: Apache, Firefox, Gnome, OpenOffice.org, Thunderbird. Some of the operating systems that fall under the open source family are: FreeDOS, GNU, Linux, OpenSolaris, ReactOS. Java,Open64, Pearl, PHP and Ruby are open source development software.

Many non-profit organizations have been formed to promote open source software. Some of which are: Apache Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative (OSI), Linux Foundation and Mozilla Foundation.

Benefits of Open Source Software

  • Reliability - Reliability of a software would mean the absence of defects that could cause data loss, failures and / or incorrect operations; otherwise known as "bugs". Bugs and defects are usually fixed quickly wherever possible, this being made possible by the availability of the source code. Unlike the "closed-source software", where all defects/bugs have to be reported to the vendor. It then goes through the internal processes before it is released as an update.
  • Stability - software is a tool to perform the tasks efficiently. Unless the business process changes, the need to change a software does not arise. Software vendors need a revenue stream to keep their business going whereas the customer does not have any desire to change/upgrade the software that works perfectly. Vendors then come up with tactics to persuade customer to upgrade their software more or less willingly. Typical tactics include withdrawing support of the older version or introducing new features. With open source this can be avoided. Having access to the source code can allow a business to choose to support itself. However, some maintenance and upgrade effort will always be needed.
  • Review - Software users have to generally trust the vendor when they preach that their software is secured, adheres to standards and is flexible to future changes. Since the software is a "close source" there is no way to validate the statements. However, with open source, users can choose to formally inspect or conduct an audit on the software.
  • Control - This is something end-users do not have over their code. You don't buy proprietary software, you just rent it. This is one of the factors that makes OSS popular. Companies and end-users are interested in controlling their own destiny and OSS makes this possible.
  • Cost - Most open source software available in the market is available free of royalties and fees. From a business point of view, the total cost of ownership (TCO) is more important than the cost of the software. A solution with the lowest cost is usually the most desirable. Some of the factors that make open source to have a low TCO include:
    • Almost zero purchase price
    • Minimal or no upgrades, reducing management costs
    • No need to keep track of license seats in use, reducing administrative costs
    • Zero vulnerability to viruses and therefore eliminating data loss and downtime
    • Hardly any security breaches and hacker attacks, reducing administrative tasks
    • Ability to prolong life of older hardware and retaining performance
    • And most important, it provides security against;
      • Collapse of software vendors and
      • Withdrawal of support for the older versions.
  • Support and Accountability - This is one of the most important factors when considering software acquisition. One of the question that arises when someone wants to consider open source is "Who do I call for support?" Experts believe that though the support mechanism and accountability for open source is different, it is generally better than proprietary software. The usual "End User License Agreement" will disclaim all liabilities and responsibilities for any serious defects. This agreement is usually a one-way street. Open source software also has a similar disclaimer including fitness for purpose. But for those who have adopted the open source software want to look at the practical benefits of increased reliability and security over the options of being able to sue. If a software is as reliable as MySQL and Linux, support ceases to an issue.

Pitfalls of Open Source Software

  1. Lack of Support
  2. Version Control
  3. Security
  4. Poor Documentation
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