Open Source Reality Check #foss4g2011

There was buzz and excitement at the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference as it formally kicked off today in Denver. But why wouldn't there be? It was the largest such gathering of this community of open source geo professionals ever with over 900 attendees!

However, as I was reminded by my colleague, Adena Schutzberg, before attending this year that you have to understand one thing: open source software is after all,  just software.
So, I prepared for covering this event with a mindset to not get caught up in the buzz and judge the event and the products being demonstrated from a more objective perspective.  So, in short, as Adena also suggested, FOSS4G is also "just another GIS conference."
Much of the interest in open source software is that in most cases, the software is considered "free." You download and use it. No support, no or few license restrictions, no or little in the way of help files but a community willing to supply you with whatever plug in you need to make it as good or better than commercial off the shelf (COTS) software. 
But to hear Paul Ramsey of OpenGeo describe open source software it should be the only choice to consider if you are looking for a geospatial technology solution. I would disagree, because, wait, it's just software.
 And having been down the road a few times with a few companies in supporting the development and design of software (including one grass roots efforts with which I was involved in the mid 80's that saw the integration of AutoCAD and dBase into a home grown GIS solution for a major oil company where I worked), I can assume that open source comes with the same problems as COTS: delays in development, bugs, functionality that is only as good as the design, etc. 
And then there is the business model. It's just software so whichever company that has taken up the charge of developing on an open source software architecture still has the same issues with clients: deliver on time, fix the bugs, support new (that is, neophyte) users.  In the end, all companies here at the event still have to keep the lights on somehow. There is, after all, a profit motive in open source software development too.
The reality is that open source software is just another choice. And I would advise anyone who has for years used COTS solutions to try open source products because they are a viable option. The community is maturing, hence a great turnout at FOSS4G 2011. More companies, even commercial providers like Esri, are getting involved because it makes good business sense. Many solutions from MapServer to QGIS are sound, viable options from which to choose. There is great support from a huge and growing global community and a code library that would rival any commercial company. Therefore, if you are either an integrator or an end user, an open source solution should be evaluated on the same level playing field as any other choice.
Because, in the end, it's just software.

Published Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Written by Joe Francica

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