LinuxUser Column 14

The other day a friend passed on a link for a new online government service he thought I’d be interested in checking out. I tried to get into the system and noticed that the registration forms seemed vaguely familiar somehow. “Hmm, where do I know this from?” I thought.

Up came the view source window in Firefox and I began sniffing around. It took me all of a minute to discover the open source forum software they were using. They hadn’t even bothered to remove the credit text, they’d just used a stylesheet command to make the text white so it wouldn’t show on the white background. Now while this software is protected by the GNU GPL this wasn’t an infringement of the letter of the license, acknowledgement was requested but not demanded.

Still what really irked me was that all over the site were plastered notes of how it was powered and run by some consultancy company. They didn’t have the good grace or honour to acknowledge the fact that they’d just re-skinned a free (in every sense of the word) software package.

Why did they do that? Is there a stigma with admitting that open source software powers the solution you’re providing to a client? It’s hard to even think about this kind of question if you’re at all immersed in the Linuxish world. Trying to step back as far as I can I think that there may still be a little doubt raised by some few clients who read a proposal suggesting open source. Yet every proposal we submit includes a page detailing the software we use (all open source) and it’s been nothing but a positive point for our clients. I’ve never lost a contract because of what was on that page.

I think the issue may lie more with the practices of some suppliers. If they’re charging a large sum of money for their work they need to justify that expense. If it’s clear that the core of the project delivered was made by volunteers and can be downloaded for free then your client may see the ‘value proposition’ slightly differently. In many ways this isn’t a technical issue, it’s a matter of ethical integrity in consultancy practice.

The honest craftsmen has confidence in their work and is proud to explain what they have done for their client. They can justify the time and money needed for their work. So in my company’s case we use some fundamental building blocks such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP and some smaller modules like the Magpie RSS parser integrated with code developed over seven years. We’re happy to charge a reasonable fee for the new code we created and the services we supply around that. But if the company in the example above charge a large amount of money for some kind of community site before just installing a free bulletin board package and changing the template they have dishonestly charged for work they didn’t do.

Now some might say that the buyer should have been smarter. They should have asked which software would be used. But the provider could have claimed it was their own ‘proprietary industry leading package’ or some such marketing speak. Well then perhaps the buyer should have checked the site like I did. Perhaps. But I’ve been working on online communities for more than a decade, most people wouldn’t have had that intuition that a registration form template looked familiar. When it comes down to brass tacks information technology is a wild west industry where people with no qualifications or credentials can become major suppliers and trusted partners.

This is, of course, a double-edged sword. Smart people are welcomed no matter their background and the industry undoubtedly benefits. But customers can and do suffer when suppliers do them a disservice through dishonesty or incompetence (or both).

Unlike some, I don’t feel that you should need to be a Chartered IT Professional (a real qualification, by the way) to be a practising consultant or supplier. But membership of organisations like the British Computer Society does provide a useful ethical code. It’s not easy to enforce but it sets out a good framework for buyers and suppliers to work towards.

The problem is that many, if not most, potential customers have no idea about the codes of conduct that exist in the various professional associations for technologists. We all need to evangelise our own association’s codes were we can. Also I think it helps to connect to your customers’ world. So for my company we’re members of the professional bodies relating to school communities and fundraising, our customers find this reassuring.

This isn’t just about customer relationships though. We have a responsibility to help protect open source software and the licensing schemes that created our free-wheeling community. Only be maintaining the perceived power of the GNU GPL can we prevent subtle, encroaching infringement. We need to be quick to educate the ignorant on licensing issues. We also need to, where appropriate, take action against the infringers. Otherwise they’ll spoil the party for all of us.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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