In the ongoing discussion about open source ILSs, one wouldn’t expect a big ILS vendor selling closed, proprietary products to have anything nice to say. Nonetheless, when SyrsiDynix Vice President of Innovation Stephen Abram did weigh in on the issue, his harsh criticism created quite a dust-up on Twitter and the blogosphere. But Abram’s white paper (PDF file), originally believed to be a leak and published to Wikileaks October 29, may have done more to legitimize the role of open source software (OSS) in libraries than challenge it; if nothing else, Abram’s marketing piece revealed that open source ILSs are a threat to the vendor-based market.
The document, which Abram asserted in an October 30 blog post was never meant to be a secret, was his company’s “reaction to open source technology development as it grows and changes in the market.” In the white paper itself, Abram warns caveat emptor to those considering open source. While conceding that some open source projects have been highly successful—Linux, Apache HTTP Servers, the internet address system Internet Protocol, and Mozilla's Firefox—he argues that it is “rare for completely open source projects to be successful,” often becoming “archipelagos of systems driven by a philosophical principle that is anti-proprietary.”
Abram also argues that the total cost of ownership can be higher with open source because of the cost of switching systems, operating costs can be higher because of compatibility issues (“by choosing a Linux desktop,” Abram writes, “a user closes the door on some software because it may never be created for or ported to Linux”), and that open source solutions are less reliable, less scalable, and require more expertise to implement. Abram ultimately concludes that while SirsiDynix is “not de facto against open source . . . at the current production cycle, jumping into open source would be dangerous, at best.”
The other side
On the other side of the argument, open source advocates in the library community have pointed out that Abram was often incorrect in his assessment of open source software, or at times even “blatantly misleading,” as Jason Griffey blogged at Pattern Recognition. Griffey suggests that on the question of total cost of ownership, open source wins: “Instead of paying for [ongoing] support,” Griffey said, “the typical library that moves to open source solutions has chosen instead to put its money into personnel,” who can be “repurposed” in ways a support contract cannot be. He adds that the annual ILS support contract at his small academic library would “go a long, long way” toward another staff position.
University of Prince Edward Island University Librarian Mark Leggott, who identifies himself as having used SirsiDynix and Innovative Interfaces products as well as a broad array of open source applications, characterizes the debate between OSS and proprietary software as largely a “religious issue” but also challenges Abram on the issue of cost: “Wrong. Just, well, wrong,” he wrote in his November 7 Loomware blog post. He continues, “When you build capacity internally using open source tools, your investment pays off in so may ways that the cost-benefit of implementing open source is many times that of a proprietary system.”
Suggesting that proprietary systems are guilty of much of what Abram accuses open source systems of having, Leggott suggests proprietary systems are themselves “archipelagos” for their refusal to use open standards. Leggott addresses Abram’s argument that OSS systems are driven by an anti-proprietary principle by pointing out that proprietary systems are driven by profit.
Opening the discussion
The library community’s quick reaction to Abram’s paper prompted Abram to offer his own reaction on his Stephen's Lighthouse blog, admitting open source technology is a “healthy competition in the marketplace.” He invited his blog readers to continue the discussion there, where he joined in by commenting on almost every reader’s comment. Some found this discourse too slow or restrictive (comments on Abram’s blog had to be monitored by him to weed out spam), so other attempts were made at faster, more open media. Jason Griffey set up a Google Docs document of the full text of Abram’s report to which readers could freely add their comments. “It was literally thrown together while I was stuck in an airport,” he told American Libraries. “Given time, I would have set up a wiki for it, probably. But Docs was faster.”
About a week after Abram’s document was released, the discourse was settling down. However, the debate between open source software and proprietary solutions in libraries is far from over. As Abram’s paper seems to show, open source software is a big-enough trend in the library technology marketplace to be seen as real competition even to some of the biggest proprietary software vendors.