FOSS The Final Frontier?

Anyone who considers themself a Trekkie (A cult fan of the Star Trek Series franchise) would immediately recognize the turn of phrase that titles this piece as being drawn from the opening monologue of every Star Trek television show or movie..  "Space... The final frontier... These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission.. etc. In somewhat similar manner as the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise explored the vast unknown reaches of Space, so too is the MSB Center of Excellence (COE) embarked on a journey to explore the relatively unexplored application of Free and Open Source Software in the local business community.. To boldly go where none has gone before?

The Open Source movement has dramatically changed the software landscape. Many companies, across the world from large enterprises to small businesses now use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in their daily business activities. This software revolution gives Small businesses (SMEs) in particular, access to many sophisticated ICT solutions that were previously too costly to acquire. However in Jamaica, many SMEs continue to be challenged by the lack of awareness, appropriate training and cost-effective professional support services which limit their ability to effectively implement and take advantage of these available technologies.

Research recently carried out by the CoE examined technical, managerial, & commercial approaches to the increased adoption and utilization of FOSS in the local business community. The FOSS Universe is not a simple one to navigate by any means. Of the 200,000 or so Open Source projects on (the definitive catalog/repository of Open Source software), only a small percentage are stable and mature enough to be considered ready for production use. Installing, configuring and implementing these worthy candidates still requires a level of technical expertise and know-how that is absent in the typical Small business, and is traditionally vested in the legacy construct known as the proprietary software vendor.

Risky Business?
Arising from the Survey and various workshop discussions conducted as part of our Research, business owners generally expressed scepticism about the possible limited availability of effective training, technical expertise to implement and maintain systems as well as a structured support mechanism. Many of these concerns arose from prior experiences with the implementation of either packaged or custom developed solutions. Nevertheless there was a strong perception that adopting FOSS-based solutions had inherent risks that made them susceptible to similar support issues.

The search for, selection and certification of FOSS business applications that are mature, robust, and appropriate for small business application is a critical support role, that should not be underestimated. Individuals and organizations can develop negative perceptions and experiences with FOSS if the process of adoption is not supported by a degree of rigor in sourcing the business solutions. A consistent program of awareness and education of business owners and decision-makers on the value-proposition to their businesses is also quite important in helping to disavow some of the prevailing myths and perceptions and stimulate positive demand. Such programs will be most effective when accompanied by actual scenario-based solution demonstrations to visualize the potential applications.

The Small Business FOSS Portfolio
As an outcome of this Research effort, the CoE has developed a Small Business FOSS Portfolio that compiles, certifies and packages implementation support services for a select, best of breed range of FOSS applications, suitable for core business functionality. The suite includes Line of Business applications such as inventory management, procurement & accounting (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and human resource management (HRM). Several case studies have already demonstrated the effectiveness of several of these FOSS Business applications for use in a variety of business contexts.

Finding appropriate solutions is only half of the adoption story. As many SMEs lack the organizational capability to implement ICT-enabled business solutions, we found it necessary to devise lean implementation methodologies based on a low-cost, non-disruptive approach that enabled SME business owners to concentrate their limited resources and management attention on participating meaningfully in the implementation and targeted business innovation made possible by these emerging FOSS business solutions.

I'll say more about these methods in part 2 of this Blog. Until then.. As my old friend Spock would say, let's hope that this worthy initiative will "live long and prosper"..