A tale of three little start-up pigs
In addition to my interest in Linux and all things Free and Open Source Software, I'm also interested in entrepreneurship. Over the last year I've been involved with a couple of failed start-ups. A start-up is a business that is in the initial planning, early development, or build-up phase to significant revenues. It is a time which is very stressful for the principals involved with the new business, and it is usually a time when the company typically doesn't have a lot of money laying around. This means that the few people involved in the business have to fill multiple hats. So while they might be the web master for the company web site, they might also maintain the web site, as well as provide support to all of the computers and networks in the company. It also means that there are many demands on the funds the company does have. So spending those funds wisely is often the difference between the fledgling company failing in bankruptcy or beating the odds and becoming a successful company. One area that I know could benefit more companies is by using free and open source software instead of purchasing proprietary software. Many entrepreneurship experts are already starting to recognize the significant reduction in cost for starting a business today as opposed to past eras, especially during the Internet boom. Linux and FOSS are at the core of the reasons why this significant reduction took place. Let's explore three ways Linux and FOSS make this possible.
Commodity Linux Servers
The first is in common use within thousands of companies, whether they realize it or not. Commodity Linux-based Internet service providers are driving a new wave of innovation on the Internet. Where it may have cost millions to purchase, implement and maintain high-speed Unix servers back in the late 1990's, today almost any company has access to probably ten times the processing power, storage capacity, and network bandwidth. Even better is that they are able to obtain all of this capability for probably one tenth of the price. If a company is not Internet-based then low cost Linux servers offer a great value for running their back-end office. With most popular Linux distributions you instantly have access to file sharing services, e-mail services, content management, database management services, and many other critical back-end software applications. While Linux has grown to be very powerful and widely used in server rooms, the distributions available are not for beginners. With the Xandros Server, which I covered previously, Xandros has started a new trend by offering a new distribution available for small and home offices. With their leadership, there are bound to be more distributions to follow suit. Packaging together a collection of business services into one easy to manage distribution, just makes a lot of sense. When you compare all of the software included in the Xandros Server and the low retail price compared to similarly priced packages such as Microsoft Small Business Server, then the value Linux represents makes even more sense.
Linux and FOSS powered laptops and workstations
Second, with low-cost back office functionality widely available, a start-up can focus on growing the company without having to worry about expending unnecessary funds for adding laptops or workstations for new resources.With access to low-cost hardware, an employee can outfit her equipment with a wide variety of free and open source software applications. With the exception of only a very few applications, most distributions have all of the office-productivity applications that most business will require at start-up. So a young company can get access to the software they need to run their business at a reasonable price. The only challenge to this scenario is combating any pre-conceived habits.
Starting a company on free and open source software at the earliest possible stage means that as the company grows, they will form core functionality based on Linux and FOSS. This cost effectiveness will continue to help a company, even if it quickly grows beyond the start-up phase. I see this software foundation as essential because it will move a company to an equal strategic competitiveness at a fraction of that for potential competitors. As identified by Thomas Friedman in "The World is Flat" emerging companies around the globe are doing just this, enabling them to quickly reach technological parity with western companies. I know that western companies should only follow their lead; following any other route will cause them to become less productive and less competitive.
PHP and Open Source Software
While pertinent to companies that are going to build software, the final area that a new company benefits from open source is in the selection and adoption of an open source software development framework. A framework is just like the frame that home builders use as they construct a new home. After the floor is set, the framework is the wooden frame built to establish the walls, ceiling and roof.With an open source software development framework, the software builder still has the flexibility to change the design some, but the framework (just like building a home) gives the developer complete freedom to finish the exterior and interior to look any way desired. This reduces overall costs because you will spend less time building software and more time finishing the software to better meet your expectations.
PHP and Python are two great languages that have become very popular building websites. A popular acronym used through out the open source community is LAMP. This popular term refers to the combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and either PHP or Python. With over 67% of all websites using Apache, the use of PHP and Python must also be equally popular. What is great about these languages is their popularity among the open source community. For what started with just the original languages, each now has wide availability of applications and content management systems written with these languages. This software is typically also available as free and open source software. As you might guess, with the availability of a great language, a popular developer community, website development frameworks, applications, and content management systems these languages provide all of the raw resources one could possibly need to build extremely powerful websites. However, even more important, with the pre-built collection of building materials these languages provide you the ability to build the house (website) of your dreams.
From these three areas (commodity Linux servers, Linux desktops with a plethora of software applications, and open source programming languages), we can see the great potential to provide high quality software to power a new start-up business to profitability. It amazes me when I continue to see new businesses formed based on proprietary software. For me the future is clear. This is software that will not be easy to replace, as I have argued before. With proprietary software companies aggressively pursuing non-software based products, this will become an investment that many companies will regret. As support weakens for this software, upgrades get farther and farther apart, and new global competitors leapfrog you with free and open source software, proprietary software will be seen as less and less a good idea. So while it might not seem like a strategic decision forging the future of your company, think twice. The use of Linux and FOSS will soon be seen as the only option when launching a new business. As the fairy story goes, those who choose proprietary software as the foundation for their business will begin to feel like the little pigs that built their houses of sticks and straw, while those choosing Linux and FOSS will have been built with brick.