This year offers rich pickings for enterprises that are unprejudiced against open source software. Along with Sun Microsystems' acquisition of Virtual Box emulation software - a rival to VMware, the heavyweight champion of computer virtualisation - we're excited by forthcoming updates of OpenOffice Suite and Thunderbird email client. Let's nail the jargon right now. A virtual computer is like a play inside a play. It looks like a PC, it behaves like a PC, but it's really just a computer program. So you can back it up, run it from a network, ship it over the internet and do all the other things you can do with software. The great thing is that if the whole system explodes, you can load a back-up onto virgin hardware and you're in business again.
Virtual Box can pretend to be any kind of computer: from an antique DOS box to a Windows Vista machine to a Sun Solaris system.
Set up is more complex than VMware or Microsoft's Virtual PC but, unlike VMware, it's free and, unlike Virtual PC, it isn't fussy about what Windows version you want to run.
As a Sun-backed virtualisation tool, Virtual Box stands out as a well-supported low-cost option for mid-sized businesses. Sun has long devoted part of its handsome profits on hardware towards tilting at Microsoft's software windmill, and the addition of an open source PC emulator ups the ante considerably. Get a copy from virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads.
Sun acquired its open source office suite from a German outfit, as it did with Virtual Box. OpenOffice has long satisfied some PC users, offering a competent word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool.
Hard questions were asked of Microsoft in 2007. Microsoft delivered its love-me or hate-me Office Vista version; for the first time in a decade, business baulked at a Microsoft upgrade. Sure, uptake of Windows 2000 was cautious, and Office 2003 seeped rather than exploded into the business market. But Office Vista has many wondering whether to buy in at all. It seems too complex and too costly. So if OpenOffice 3, due for test release in March, proves a major advance, then a good slice of MS Office business could head to an open source solution.
If you're wondering what the open source catch is, it's just a different business model. Microsoft charges you a lot for the right to use its software, and doesn't expect that you'll necessarily pay much for help in using or customising it. Open source programs are basically free, but companies have sprung up that offer to teach you how to use it, or to customise it, for a fee.
OpenOffice 3 has been squarely targeted at matching MS Office core functionality without Vista's bluster. If it hits the spot, it can corrode Microsoft's monopoly.
And there's the clincher for the open source pitch.
IT budgets are tightening as interest rates rise. At the same time, PC prices, including notebook prices, are falling through the floor, except for the cost of licensing Microsoft applications. If open source software does what you need, your budget will stretch further.
Thunderbird, the open source competitor to Outlook, should have its next major release in the fourth quarter of 2008. Thunderbird has offered a limited calendaring add-on for some months, but the next release will aggressively try to match Outlook's scheduling capability. Frankly, we don't expect email, with or without calendaring, to determine who wins the hearts of 2008's PC users. Email is so out of control that an entirely new approach is needed. But, in terms of traditional function, Thunderbird could at least keep Outlook honest and might just outshine it.
If you can't hold out for future ware, there are plenty of open source options in the showrooms today. Try OpenProj from openproj.org for a free alternative to MS Project. It can import Microsoft files and matches much of its functionality, and runs on Linux, Unix, Mac and Windows.
There lies the great opportunity of 2008: the possibility that all manner of devices will become equally useful to business. Open source is brand agnostic, so we may see Mac's ultra-thin Airbook, an Asus Eee Linux-based micro PC and an Intel desktop all running OpenOffice, Thunderbird and OpenProj. It's a far cry from the days when computing meant Microsoft - if only we can see it.
Peter Moon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in Logie-Smith Lanyon Lawyers.
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