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FOSS & Professional Associations

How will the growth of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) affect established professional associations in the IT industry?

In some ways, the appearance of free and open source software on the mainstream radar means business as usual. There is little in the nature of the software itself that is different from the proprietary and in-house system which dominate today.

In other ways the differences are huge. The differences as they apply to professional associations is the subject of this brief paper.

Good practice

Professional associations pride themselves on the professional behavior of their members. The message is "Our members are of the very highest caliber. Employers respect that and look for our members. The association ensures the quality of members through recruitment policies and education."

In practice, of course, there is a very wide range or professionalism applied in the IT industry. While lip service is often paid to Best Practice and the application of process, sadly we often see that this is not carried through.

Of course there are some excellent projects out there, but there are some real duds too, even those staffed with members of professional associations. The problem has always been getting people to recognise the value of best practice, not least because the really useful best practice nugets are often lost in a fog of consultancy offerings.

Knowing what best practice is should be a matter of observing projects and choosing the processes that deliver results, but it is very hard indeed to get an undistorted view into the heart of a proprietary or in-house project. This is where FOSS projects really score.

Of course, there are some awful FOSS projects out there. The good thing is that one can clearly see that they are awful.

Thankfully, there are a number of really excellent FOSS projects too. Because these projects are open, we can peer inside and see what works in practice in a beautifully undistorted way. Further more, we can look in lots of projects and find out what generaly works in practice.

An excellent example of a well run project in the open source space is Debian. See: www.debian.org. The Debian project implements processes which ensure a very high degree of professionalism among its members, and there are on-going efforts to improve these processes further. Compliance to processes is ensured through almost complete transparancy - every aspect of every step of every process is open to public scrutiny and review.

Proprietary and in-house projects would do well to take the Debian project as a role-model. Sadly, few come close to the levels of professionalism exhibited by the Debian team. It may be argued that many non-FOSS projects can not afford the levels of transparancy found in the Debian project, but in this case other methods must take the place of public scrutiny in order to keep the projects honest.

Professional associations need to actively seek out best practice in the FOSS community and bring this to the attention of their membership. The value an association can add is in packaging the information in an easily consumable form.

Of course, this work by the association could itself be released under an open source license, thereby giving something back to the community which provide the raw information.

Education

Much IT training today is based around proprietary software products. The vendors of these products look to training as a valuable revenue stream, and as a way of marketing more of their product range to their customer base.

Of course, product specific training is not very portable and this leads to vendor lock-in from a number of different angles.

One of the most pervasive forms of vendor lock-in is training which leads to product certification. Any individual who has taken such training has a vested interest in seeing more of the technology they know being deployed. This in turn can lead to product selection excluding the best solution for the job.

FOSS tends to work closely with open standards, and establishes the idea that one learns the standards rather than the products. Understanding the way a given product implements a standard does take some effort, of course, but the ability of any vendor to lock in a standards-aware client is reduced, and the chances of getting the best tool for the job are increased.

Too often, professional associations compound vendor lock-in by endorsing, or hosting or otherwise giving the nod to the education regime of proprietary software firms.

A more generally useful tack would be to work on standards based training packages. The association may find that they can benefit from licenseing their training packages under a FOSS license.

Legal support

Associations need to understand the legal foundation upon which FOSS stands, and how this works in the context of members professional activities.

There is increasing use being made of FOSS in commercial environments. FOSS is copyright software made available under license, in just the same way as proprietary software. While in many ways the licenses for proprietary software the same, they do differ in a number of key ways.

The most obvious difference is that an FOSS licenses do not demand a license fee, where proprietary licenses typically do.

It is the lack of a license fee is what people assume is meant by "free software". In fact, this is not the case. "Free sotware" is software that is free as in freedom. A frequently heard phrase is "free as in speech, not free as in beer".

The next difference is that FOSS is usually made available with source code. Licences vary in detail, but as the name "open source" suggests, having the source available is a fairly central idea.

Not having to pay, and having access to the the source code seems to lead some people to think that they are free to do anything at all with FOSS. This is not true, and may be a dangerous assumption.

This is the point where an FOSS aware professional association can step in with help and guidance for its members.

The various FOSS licenses demand different things from those using the software (no different from non-FOSS in this regard). For more information see fsf.org and www.opensource.org.

Apealing to free & open source developers

Many established associations are viewed as lacking relevance by those in the free & open source movement.

Addressing the above issues and working with the wider free & open source community will aleviate this over time.


Copyright ©2004 Bruce Badger


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