South African companies are being urged to adopt open source software so they can not only cut their running costs but also contribute to job creation and boost the national economy.

  Software veteran Jon “Mad Dog” Hall is in SA this week, telling companies that helping themselves will also help the country.

“My main message is about jobs in SA,” Hall said at the LinuxWorld conference in Johannesburg. “Last year, R3bn left SA in software royalties. Open source creates an opportunity to move a lot of that money back into SA by employing people to develop software tailored to meet the needs of the industry.”

Open source advocates usually focused on the benefits of being able to adapt the software to meet a user’s individual needs. “We haven’t really emphasised the effect on jobs before,” Hall said.

He is a director of Linux International, an organisation that promotes the Linux open source operating system. Linux is gaining ground as a free-to-use, free-to-adapt operating system to rival systems including Windows. Hall expects Linux to gradually gain a 30% share of the Microsoft dominated desktop market, where it now holds 5%-7%.

Open source is also shaking up other sections of the industry as a wide variety of industry- specific applications are developed to rival the traditional fee bearing, brand-name versions.

Companies that bought proprietary software were slaves to the supplier because they could not change the software to suit the way they worked, Hall said. They might not even be able to switch to a rival package easily, if the documents they had created in the initial software were not compatible with a different program.

It had recently become apparent that commercial suppliers were concentrating on having their developments carried out for the lowest possible cost — often outsourcing to India and China — and were not focusing on meeting their customers’ needs. The number of users had overwhelmed their ability to respond to individual needs.

Hall believes that no software company will make money from licence fees. Instead, they will sell their services and support. Database vendors, for example, could let users access their database over the internet and guarantee to protect, back up and archive information for a small monthly fee.

But far from putting companies out of business, open source had the potential to create many more jobs, he said.

“When people finally understand that they can change the software to fit their needs, there will be an explosion of companies wanting to have the software tailored, and that will generate jobs for programmers.”

Microsoft might use 500 programmers in Redmond to develop an office package for the entire world, Hall said. “If it created an open source version and everybody said: it’s good but I’d like a little change, they would bring in developers to make the change. That’s local jobs for local people in SA, not in Redmond.”

Business Day