Open Source: A paradigm shift for the IT Industry

Open Source is the biggest disruptor the software industry has ever seen and it will eventually result in cheaper software and new business models…

-Gartner

Gartner’s predictions now suggest that in coming years, OSS’s impact on application software will cross $19 billion, with a five-year CAGR of 44%. With the Open Source Initiative (OSI) organization and thousands of developers worldwide backing OSS, its impact on the $170 billion IT industry needs a closer look.

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Major players in the open source space

Open Source Software (OSS) is collaboratively developed computer software with its source code made public. Over the past decade, OSS has seen rapid growth in the industry owing to the price, reliability and flexibility benefits it offers. The growth of Open Source Software (OSS) has altered the fundamental nature of the industry in a true sense as an increasing number of business models are switching to OSS. It has given rise to major implications for the IT industry while also carving out niche segments in the industry such as Open Source Consulting etc.

THE GROWTH STORY

So why has OSS grown exponentially? What factors have driven software giants to using as well as publishing open source?

The biggest factor that propelled OSS onto the main stage was the cost advantage, but, contrary to popular belief, it is not the only benefit that organizations derive from OSS:

Security – Linus’s Law (named after Linus Torvalds, Linux creator and OSS pioneer) states, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. OSS offers enhanced security by leveraging the strength of its developer base to quickly identify and fix bugs.

Quality – OSS offers immensely better quality of code. Imagine thousands of developers constantly striving to innovate and contribute to an OSS versus a handful of developers shipping out a licensed software package.

Trial & Support – OSS also offers great trial and support options. As the code is free, organizations can try it out at will, and with hundreds of communities and online forums of open source developers, support is never far away for the users.

Flexibility – Other benefits come in the form of amazing customizability, freedom and flexibility the code offers. Organizations typically tweak the code with minimal effort to best match their requirements, a relatively well-known example being that of Goobuntu, a ‘long term support’ version of Ubuntu developed and used in-house by Google.

Hybrid Business Models

In addition to pure open source companies, the growth of OSS has been fueled by proprietary software companies pursuing a ‘hybrid’ business model. There have been numerous instances of software giants open sourcing some of their products: Adobe open sourced its Flex tool while Yahoo did so with the Flickr API. This has lent credibility to the OSS bandwagon and prompted firms and venture capitalists to invest in open source. In September 2013, IBM announced a gigantic $1 billion investment in the Linux platform.

MAJOR ISSUES

OSS has been able to penetrate almost all sectors of the software industry, ranging from ERP to Server OS and has made inroads into the public consumer segment as well (as depicted by the graph). While OSS continues to grow unbounded, it becomes critical to address the problems associated with OSS. The biggest gray area for OSS is legal uncertainty. There are unaddressed issues with the interpretation of open source licenses (such as GPLv2) which use an array of loosely defined terms such as ‘derivative work’.

Open Source Software Usage Adaption (%age)

Open Source Software Usage Adaption (%age)

Another problem lies in the management of OSS on a large scale. Many companies build their core business models on top of an open source code or platform. This necessitates the formulation of a sound usage policy, failure of which could hugely devalue the product. This was the case with Cisco’s $500million acquisition of Linksys where the Free Software Foundation successfully claimed release of open source based elements of Linksys. Other trivial issues include limited user-friendliness and lack of ‘formal’ technical support. The growth of OSS is sustainable only if these issues are eliminated, otherwise, the software industry will soon be entangled in a web of lawsuits, plagiarism and uncertainty.

WHERE IS THE FUTURE?

Three distinct schools of thought from the software world have sparked the Open Source vs. Free Software vs. Closed Source debate for paving the growth of the industry. While advocates for Closed Source bank upon benefits such as saving intellectual property and minimizing competition, they restrain innovation and reusability for the industry. On the other hand, Free Software offers unmatched cost benefits and a ‘morally right thing to do’ argument, while suffering from loopholes such as poor quality and low accountability. In such a business environment, open source attempts to pave a middle way promising highly flexible, reliable code at minimal cost. But with the open source issues remaining unaddressed, the promise might not always be realized which means that the three-fold software debate continues to heat up.

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Abhinav is a PGP 1 student at IIM Ahmedabad and a member of the Consult Club. He holds a Dual Degree in Computer Science from IIT Roorkee and has worked at Adobe for 10 months before coming to IIM Ahmedabad. He will be interning with the Boston Consulting Group. He is passionate about reading, traveling and playing volleyball.

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Hello? Rural India calling!

The advent of mobile phones in the past decade has led to an undeniable transformation of the landscape of the world. It has touched the lives of everyone – from the banker to the boatman. As the cellular phone continues its surging progress towards ubiquity, we shall examine how it is affecting the lives of the Indian farmer, and changing the face of agriculture in rural India. 

Mobile Telephony in Agriculture

In the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development, or ICT4D, mobile phones are touted as a potent tool for development. The sheer scale of global adoption of mobile phones in the last decade perhaps lends credibility to this fact. Even within India, the last decade has seen a steep rise in mobile phone subscriptions, with a wireless teledensity of 70.57%, as of January 2013. With the saturation of the urban market and the rising popularity of the Bottom of the Pyramid concept, mobile phones have penetrated deep into rural India.

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With its ability to offer wide and rapid outreach across a large geography, it is no surprise that mobile phone technology has its applications in the field of agriculture. Enabling higher speeds of information exchange, it brings farmers, organizations and markets closer to each other, with the direct fallout of greater transparency and leveraging power to the usually downtrodden farmer.

Case Studies: Mobile-based Services for Farmers

The opportunities of using mobile phones in agriculture are immense, and subsequently, there have been a plethora of mobile-based services targeting farmers. Some are listed below:

Reuters Market Light, a subsidiary of Thomson Reuters, provides personalized agricultural information over mobile phones to the farming community, to a cumulative subscriber base of over 1 million across 13 states.

Ekgaon Technologies, started by an Ashoka Fellow, offers a service called ‘OneFarm’ in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, that provides soil-specific nutrient recommendations to the farmer through an automated system in local language via mobile phones.

Recently, ITC Ltd. Launched an interactive mobile telephony system called ‘Namma Sandesh’, that provides crop advisory, market prices, weather forecast and local news to tobacco and ragi farmers in Karnataka.

The Benefits

The introduction of mobile phones has changed agriculture in multiple ways.

First, it has helped farmers make more informed choices. It has helped connect farmers separated by vast distances, enabling the sharing of knowledge on best practices. Moreover, tailor-made weather forecasts add weight to his crop decisions.

Beyond this, it has enhanced his access to markets and mandis previously out of reach. No longer can the middleman use information asymmetry against the gullible kisan (farmer) – information from markets around the world is now at his fingertips.Beyond these, mobile telephony has helped in rapid transfer of information across vast distances. This is critical because a few hours can make all the difference during a pest or disease outbreak.Finally, it has helped empower the farmer with information, opening new doors in terms of opportunities and knowledge.

The Challenges Ahead

While there has been significant contribution of mobile phones in rural India, there are many hurdles to be overcome.

The major hurdle is simply technological and financial considerations. To develop infrastructure for improving mobile networks in rural India would require the willingness of companies to invest for low initial returns. The financial burden of setting up infrastructure could be reduced by sharing of networks by carriers.

While mobile connectivity is high in rural India, mobile data (or GPRS) is yet to catch up. This restricts farmer-oriented services largely to text SMS or voice as the mode of communication.

This restriction is compounded by the low levels of literacy, and tech-literacy in far-flung areas. As voice is expensive, most services focus on text SMS-based service delivery. However, many handsets do not support Indian language text and English is little-known in villages.   

There is also the issue of the quality of content delivered through various services. From the content to the delivery, there are many challenges faced in designing effective services for the Indian farmer. Innovation and creativity are much-needed, and the content has to be packaged for the local socio-cultural setting.

As a final word, it would be wise to remember that mobile telephony, just like any technological innovation, is not a panacea. Its interactions with the social fabric are complex. For example, in a typical rural family, the head of the house owns the phone – a subtle reinforcement of existing power hierarchies.

Thus, mobile telephony has rewritten the story of the rural farmer. It has shrunk the distances separating him from the rest of the world and brought information to his fingertips. It has brought services that reduce the risk of crop damage or failure, and improved his access and aspiration levels. There is, however, a long way to go. Technological, infrastructural, content-related and social challenges need to be overcome.  

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Girish is a PGP-1 student of IIM Ahmedabad and a member of the Consult Club. Prior to joining IIMA, he graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering. He loves music, reading and discussions, and is passionate about the social sector.