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Open Source Software - Good For Business?
Is open source software good for business? I want to critically compare open source software solutions and proprietary solutions.
By Rishi Shonpal on 4 April, 2003 - 12:11 pm

Is open source software good for business? I want to critically compare open source software solutions and proprietary solutions.

I was wondering what products, organisations and groups to you consider represent the open source community. And also wanted to select products, organisations and groups that represent the commercial community.

I have limited knowledge regarding this and thought maybe you could help me. The products that are select need to be able to be compared (if possible) directly e.g. MySQL and SQL Server. I also need to provide references and the journals /papers I have seen have had limited scope.

I very much appreciate your help.

By Jiri Baum on 5 April, 2003 - 9:47 am

Rishi Shonpal:
> Is open source software good for business? I want to critically
> compare open source software solutions and proprietary solutions.


- The most important difference between Open Source and proprietary solutions is that between multi-sourcing and single-sourcing. With proprietary software, you're in a single-supplier situation, with all the disadvantages that entails. The only company that can supply SQL Server is Microsoft. Admittedly MS is rather large, so it's unlikely to fold, but it places them in a position where they can dictate supply of things like support, upgrades, customizations, etc.

With Open Source, the licence permits all parties to supply these, and many do; your local Linux Users Group or the program documentation should be able to direct you to local companies with expertise.

There's no real cite for this; it comes directly from the licences.

- The second advantage is that mature Open Source programs tend to be more reliable than proprietary programs (as sold). Of course, that only applies to mature projects; there's a lot of early stuff out on the net, too.

The usual reference for this is: B. Miller, D. Koski, C. Lee, V. Maganty, R. Murthy, A. Natarajan and J. Steidl. "Fuzz revisited: A re-examination of the reliability of unix utilities and services." Technical report, Computer Sciences Department, University of Wisconsin, 1995. http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~bart/fuzz/

- Miscellaneous links: http://www.mitre.org/support/papers/tech_papers_01/kenwood_software/ http://www.opensource.org/advocacy/case_for_business.php http://www.opensource.org/advocacy/case_for_customers.php

You're probably familiar with Eric Raymond's writings: http://catb.org/~esr/writings/

The Free Software Foundation is likely to be pretty much useless for a business case (they speak of moral right and wrong, and ignore the bottom line), but I'd be remiss if I didn't include them: http://www.fsf.org

Jiri
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools
Jiri

By Bob Peterson on 5 April, 2003 - 3:05 pm

It may all well be moot if this lawsuit goes through.

http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31800


Bob Peterson

By Michael Griffin on 6 April, 2003 - 12:16 pm

This wasn't a particularly good article on the subject.. I've been following the story on this because my curiosity had been peaked by the various software lawsuits we have seen lately (e.g. the Rockwell spreadsheet case).

The general summary of the situation so far is that SCO made various sweeping claims against IBM which most observers in the IT business found to be either laughable or at best, puzzling. When the specifics came out, the claims narrowed down to SCO suspects that certain system integrators copied a handfull of SCO proprietary libraries when they moved some former customers' applications from SCO Unix to some form of Linux. What IBM's connection in this was (if any) is unclear and what connection this has to SCO's initial statements on the case is even more unclear.

In other words, so far the mountain has roared and brought forth a mouse. What I did find interesting in other articles I have read though is that SCO has a large patent porfolio which they bought from AT&T and which they are busy digging through.

The most interesting result so far is their claim to own the C++ programming language. They have been making some rather oracular statements regarding this, but there seems to be the implication that they are thinking about demanding royalties from anyone using C++ (or anything derived from it). This could end up like the Timeline - MS SQL lawsuit where software developers and customers end up getting targetted for something they had no direct involvement in. If you want something to worry about, this will be it.

--

************************
Michael Griffin
London, Ont. Canada
************************

By Tim Heckman on 6 April, 2003 - 9:47 pm

Isn't the genie already out of the bottle?

By Walt Boyes on 7 April, 2003 - 10:19 am

Combining this with Solaia's so-far highly successful attempt to "tax" the transmission of digital data from PCs to control systems, life looks pretty good for Microsoft.

Walt Boyes

---------------------
Spitzer and Boyes LLC
"consulting from the engineer
to the distribution channel"
21118 SE 278th Place
Maple Valley, WA 98038
Ph. 425-432-8262
Fx. 253-981-0285
walt@waltboyes.com
www.spitzerandboyes.com
--------------------------

By Ralph Mackiewicz on 8 April, 2003 - 2:48 pm

> >> It may all well be moot if this lawsuit goes through.
> >
> >>http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31800 <
> >
> >Isn't the genie already out of the bottle?
>
> Combining this with Solaia's so-far highly successful attempt to "tax"
> the transmission of digital data from PCs to control systems, life
> looks pretty good for Microsoft.

I think it was in the eWeek article I read on this subject where it was pointed out that the market capitalization of the SCO Group was about $30 million dollars. That makes this look more like a ploy to extract a better price for the company from an unwilling suitor with deep pockets. IBM could make a hostile tender offer at 3 times the current price for one-tenth the amount that the suit is asking for.

Regards,
Ralph Mackiewicz
SISCO, Inc.

By Curt Wuollet on 8 April, 2003 - 2:51 pm

Re: SCO vs IBM. I wouldn't sell your IBM stock just yet :^)
Anyone who really knows Linux, before and after IBM's involvement, knows that, while helpful, IBM's contributions have hardly been crucial, and could be excised without much impediment to enterprise Linux. IBM's moral snd marketing support have been much more significant than their code contributions or any imagined "idea transfer". And the beauty of OSS is that these contributions and the idea flow and discussions have been in the public domain and are readily accessable to all. No document shredding or coverups possible or necessary. Of course, the truth has little to do with legal process, so the fact that IBM has a lot more money will probably determine the outcome. And I can't imagine a faster and more thorough way for SCO to exit the UNIX business than this lawsuit which spits on UNIX culture and tradition and alienates the entire *NIX community. Even it they win, they lose. That's how I feel as as a longtime "dyed in the wool" UNIX guy who will hereafter be known as a Linux guy. It's all the dregs of the proprietary poison in the well. It takes no remarkable intellect to see that Linux will be the big winner, as it is the antidote.

Re: Solaia
Simply a more slow acting poison, once the symptoms appear it's too late for antidotes. Prevention here is the cure. All the more reason to reject treacherous "partners" while you still can. If government can't see the damage this does, the trade should act in it's own interest by dealing with more trustworthy folks.

Regards

cww

By Higginbotham Ricky on 7 April, 2003 - 2:24 pm

> It may all well be moot if this lawsuit goes through.
>
>http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=31800 <
>
>Isn't the genie already out of the bottle?
They don't have patents on Linux and aren't sueing for it, the article is misleading IMHO. Its not the death of Linux. SCO is sueing IBM for breach of contract (NDA) because, basically, theres no way Linux could be so good for high end hardware without IBM stealing SCOs ideas and giving them to Linux developers. Even if SCO won, and theres no reason to assume they will, there are plenty of ways to remove the offending code. Its a good way to increase the stock price of SCO and MS, and thats about it.

Caldera released their version of Linux under the GPL which means they gave up their IP rights (basically). They are just trying to increase their stock price enough to come out with some money. SCO won't even give specifics to their allegation but there have been some rebuttals. http://www.opensource.org/sco-vs-ibm.html

Richard Higginbotham (speaking for me)

By Michael Griffin on 8 April, 2003 - 4:27 pm

On April 7, 2003 10:23, Higginbotham Ricky wrote:
<clip>
> SCO is sueing IBM for breach
> of contract (NDA) because, basically, theres no way Linux could be so good
> for high end hardware without IBM stealing SCOs ideas and giving them to
> Linux developers.

SCO knew all about high end hardware? IBM didn't? Are you sure you wouldn't like to re-word your explanation?

************************
Michael Griffin
London, Ont. Canada
************************

By Higginbotham Ricky on 9 April, 2003 - 3:23 pm

Nope. Its the ridiculous context that makes it so absurd. :-)
I was being tongue in cheek, should have emphasised that little bit of craziness so it was more clear.

Richard Higginbotham
(speaking for me)

By Francis Lovering on 6 April, 2003 - 11:30 am

"Is open source software good for business?" is a good question. I do not think the answer is obvious. I reply as a supplier of software, for the automation industry. I would love to make my software Open Source - but it could bankrupt me. I try to make ControlDraw 'Open' - for example it is an MS Access based product, but I do not try to hide the database in any way, in fact quite the opposite, even though it (the structure of the database, fields and tables etc) encapsulates a great deal of my specialist expertise. I have contemplated moving it to an Open Source platform, and done some research on what is involved. And it would be a huge effort. MS has put a lot into making their products (VB6, Access in my case) user friendly and quick to use. The same applies to the ActiveX controls that ControlDraw uses. I am fairly sure that I could not achieve anywhere near the same levels of productivity with Open Source software as I get from the MS platform. The challenge of moving on to the next generation, be it dot.net or Open Source is the big issue. If I go Open Source can I earn a living from it?

Francis Lovering
www.controldraw.co.uk

By Jiri Baum on 6 April, 2003 - 9:56 pm

Francis Lovering:
> "Is open source software good for business?" is a good question. I do
> not think the answer is obvious.

> I reply as a supplier of software, for the automation industry.

As a software vendor, your entire business model would have to change; from that point of view, it may be quite painful, though you have the advantage that you already have a Consultancy arm.

Open Source is good for end-users and programmers, but it's quite unkind to software vendors themselves.

> I would love to make my software Open Source - but it could bankrupt
> me.
...
> I have contemplated moving it to an Open Source platform, and done
> some research on what is involved. And it would be a huge effort. MS
> has put a lot into making their products (VB6, Access in my case) user
> friendly and quick to use.

The equivalent Linux projects would probably be something like python and glade (for VB) and PostgreSQL (for Access).

> The same applies to the ActiveX controls that ControlDraw uses. I am
> fairly sure that I could not achieve anywhere near the same levels of
> productivity with Open Source software as I get from the MS platform.

The trick, I guess, is to keep an ear to the ground and adopt Open Source when the relevant projects get the combination of maturity and features required (or just slightly less, if you want to contribute).

> If I go Open Source can I earn a living from it?

Indubitably; the consultancy arm would have to become dominant, with the software sale itself becoming pretty much negligible.

Jiri
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools

By Higginbotham Ricky on 7 April, 2003 - 2:21 pm

Jiri:
> The equivalent Linux projects would probably be something like python
> and glade (for VB) and PostgreSQL (for Access).

Qt is easier to use than gtk to use (IMHO), I like gtk and hope this changes soon. pyuic can create python code fairly well. The closest I've seen to VB environment wise is python(software language) combined with Black Adder (IDE). Black Adder is still beta (rel 4), a commercial app, and definately not ready for prime time. When it is ready it will do alot for cross platform RAD development. They are having a hard time keeping up with new releases of the Qt library though.

For Access, I would look at "pgaccess". Its a db frontend with plugins for postgresSQL and mySQL. Its nice for visualization.

I use python on Windows reguarly because its much more powerful than VB for certain tasks like string handling and scales very well. A wysiwyg GUI builder is really all that is still missing (BAs niche when its complete). I use the beta for Black Adder and it works sufficiently well to create simple GUIs. Btw, using python or BA doesn't tie you to Open Source, or Linux, or Windows, or Mac, or ... for that matter.

I don't know enough about CORBA (yet) to comment on it in relation to ActiveX. It is cross platform, but I think there are companies working on ActiveX for Linux, so you might be able to leverage some components that way.

Richard Higginbotham (speaking for me)

By Jiri Baum on 8 April, 2003 - 3:33 pm

> Jiri:
> > The equivalent Linux projects would probably be something like
> > python and glade (for VB) and PostgreSQL (for Access).

Ricky Higginbotham:
> The closest I've seen to VB environment wise is python(software
> language) combined with Black Adder (IDE). Black Adder is still beta
> (rel 4), a commercial app, and definately not ready for prime time.


Not familiar with BA.

> For Access, I would look at "pgaccess". Its a db frontend with
> plugins for postgresSQL and mySQL. Its nice for visualization.

Yes, of course - I use pgaccess also. I was thinking back-end-database at the time, and didn't think to mention the front end, which is a separate project in Linux.

(A lot of the time, what would be a single application under MS will be a group of cooperating projects in Linux. It's just a difference of organization, and makes no real difference to the end-user experience.)

> I use python on Windows reguarly because its much more powerful than
> VB for certain tasks like string handling and scales very well. A
> wysiwyg GUI builder is really all that is still missing (BAs niche
> when its complete).

Glade is pretty much wysiwyg... plus it uses XML, an advantage if you need buzzwords :-)

Jiri
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools

By Ralph Mackiewicz on 7 April, 2003 - 4:51 pm

> > "Is open source software good for business?" is a good question. I
> > do not think the answer is obvious.
>
> > I reply as a supplier of software, for the automation industry.
>
> As a software vendor, your entire business model would have to change;
> from that point of view, it may be quite painful, though you have the
> advantage that you already have a Consultancy arm.
...snip...snip...

> Indubitably; the consultancy arm would have to become dominant, with
> the software sale itself becoming pretty much negligible.

And, what if the whole purpose of your software product is to enable your customers to accomplish useful tasks themselves, without consultants?

The "give away the software to sell consulting services" model implies that the requirement for a profitable business model in a commercial organization providing open source is that the software must be so complicated that consulting is required to use it properly. Hmmmm. I'm reminded of something a famous software philosopher once said after hearing someone claim that proprietary software makers purposely make their products hard to use so that they can sell support services, "Person who live in glass house should not throw stones".

Seriously though, maybe the requirement for a commercially successful open source product company is that the product must be 1) a complex commodity, 2) based on open standards, 3) a large potential customer base, and 4) with a relatively large external base of expertise to depend on. These characteristics seem to fit the "successful" commercial open source product companies that are out there. Are there any successful commercial open source product companies outside of the operating system markets?

Regards,
Ralph Mackiewicz
(Works for a proprietary software vendor)

By Jiri Baum on 8 April, 2003 - 2:53 pm

Jiri Baum:
> > As a software vendor, your entire business model would have to
> > change; from that point of view, it may be quite painful, though you
> > have the advantage that you already have a Consultancy arm.
...
> > the consultancy arm would have to become dominant, with the software
> > sale itself becoming pretty much negligible.

Ralph Mackiewicz:
> And, what if the whole purpose of your software product is to enable
> your customers to accomplish useful tasks themselves, without
> consultants?

That's the painful 5% - in that case, your business will fold if you go Open Source, or if somebody else creates an equivalent Open Source
project and brings it to maturity.

However, note that even such products will probably have some consulting opportunities: some customers simply have such complex requirements that they need an expert, even with the best software in the world.[1]

> The "give away the software to sell consulting services" model implies
> that the requirement for a profitable business model in a commercial
> organization providing open source is that the software must be so
> complicated that consulting is required to use it properly.

Open Source software doesn't have a requirement for a profitable business model; or, rather, not for a vendor-profitable model. It may have some other model, such as Apache group's customer-profitable one.

> Are there any successful commercial open source product companies
> outside of the operating system markets?

The usual star is Digital Creations (now Zope Corporation). Indeed, this is an example of exactly the sort of thing you're talking about above - it's a system to enable people to do fairly funky stuff for themselves. Zope Corporation itself provides high-end solutions in this space.

Before they released zope, this space was much much smaller; there were consultancies that produced products in it, of course, but they were all expensive. By allowing people to make low-end solutions for themselves, they expanded the space to such an extent that they are still ahead.

A similar effect might happen with Francis Lovering's ControlDraw, upthread: a lot of people would do stuff simple stuff for themselves, but for high end or complex stuff, the expertise isn't in the drawing of the boxes themselves, but in knowing which boxes to draw. I don't think any software can help with that. And if they've drawn smaller projects and the prototypes in ControlDraw, who are they going to call?

Jiri

[1] In fact, one might argue that it's the other way around; that the software enables the customers to have more complex requirements, so
that the result better suits their situation than they would be able to attain without it. For instance, some modern military airplanes are not
aerodynamically stable, because software can compensate for that and it allows them to have other advantages.
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools

By Ralph Mackiewicz on 9 April, 2003 - 3:30 pm

> > > As a software vendor, your entire business model would have to
> > > change; from that point of view, it may be quite painful, though
> > > you have the advantage that you already have a Consultancy arm.
> ...
> > > the consultancy arm would have to become dominant, with the
> > > software sale itself becoming pretty much negligible.
>
> > And, what if the whole purpose of your software product is to enable
> > your customers to accomplish useful tasks themselves, without
> > consultants?
>
> That's the painful 5% - in that case, your business will fold if you
> go Open Source, or if somebody else creates an equivalent Open Source
> project and brings it to maturity.

Good point, but I think the percentage is way low. I don't recall ever having bought a program for my own use (including professional use) that required any consulting to use. If it did, I probably wouldn't use it. I think that enabling people to do complex tasks without consulting is the primary benefit of the majority of software that is sold (or downloaded for free for that matter).

> > The "give away the software to sell consulting services" model
> > implies that the requirement for a profitable business model in a
> > commercial organization providing open source is that the software
> > must be so complicated that consulting is required to use it
> > properly.
>
> Open Source software doesn't have a requirement for a profitable
> business model; or, rather, not for a vendor-profitable model. It may
> have some other model, such as Apache group's customer-profitable one.

I never meant to imply that a vendor-profitable business model was a requirement. However, the question was: can a vendor-profitable business model be built on an open source product? With the exception of O/S companies and perhaps this Zope company (which is far out of any area of interest I have), I can't see how you can make a profitable business selling only consulting services for software unless the software is too complex for a typical user to apply for themselves and that you don't have to make your own investments in the engineering required to produce the software.

> A similar effect might happen with Francis Lovering's ControlDraw,
> upthread: a lot of people would do stuff simple stuff for themselves,
> but for high end or complex stuff, the expertise isn't in the drawing
> of the boxes themselves, but in knowing which boxes to draw. I don't
> think any software can help with that. And if they've drawn smaller
> projects and the prototypes in ControlDraw, who are they going to
> call?

ControlDraw, as an OSS project, might become successful but how can you build a for-profit company on a model where nobody pays anything for ControlDraw? Deciding what boxes to put in the drawing is a service that almost everybody on this list provides. The authors of ControlDraw won't have any special advantage (other than perhaps a minor marketing advantage of having their name on the software) in this well served market. Besides, developing ControlDraw is a different skill set than deciding what boxes to draw using ControlDraw.

Regards,
Ralph Mackiewicz

> > > And, what if the whole purpose of your software product is to
> > > enable your customers to accomplish useful tasks themselves,
> > > without consultants?

Jiri Baum:
> > That's the painful 5% - in that case, your business will fold if you
> > go Open Source, or if somebody else creates an equivalent Open
> > Source project and brings it to maturity.

Ralph Mackiewicz:
> Good point, but I think the percentage is way low.

That percentage is from the programmers' point of view. 5% for-sale programs, 95% custom. Since the for-sale programs sell thousands of copies, they outnumber the custom stuff from the users' POV. However, the percentage may well be off; it doesn't affect the main argument, that programmers will still have jobs.

> I think that enabling people to do complex tasks without consulting is
> the primary benefit of the majority of software that is sold (or
> downloaded for free for that matter).

Yeah, programs (should) make complex tasks simple. Then people increase the demands on those tasks until they're complex again.

In any case, though, somebody has to do the tasks; either companies can develop in-house experience (and hire employees) or they can outsource (and hire consultants).

...
> I never meant to imply that a vendor-profitable business model was a
> requirement. However, the question was: can a vendor-profitable
> business model be built on an open source product? With the exception
> of O/S companies and perhaps this Zope company (which is far out of
> any area of interest I have), I can't see how you can make a
> profitable business selling only consulting services for software
> unless the software is too complex for a typical user to apply for
> themselves and that you don't have to make your own investments in the
> engineering required to produce the software.

The services would generally be those of an Integrator. Not every project needs the services of one, of course; but there's enough that do. Those that don't effectively do the same stuff in-house, anyway.

(Zope Corp. is basically in the same category; they build complicated websites for people, based on the zope suite. Simple websites based on zope people do for themselves, if they've got the time and know-how.)

> > A similar effect might happen with Francis Lovering's ControlDraw,
> > upthread: a lot of people would do stuff simple stuff for
> > themselves, but for high end or complex stuff, the expertise isn't
> > in the drawing of the boxes themselves, but in knowing which boxes
> > to draw. I don't think any software can help with that. And if
> > they've drawn smaller projects and the prototypes in ControlDraw,
> > who are they going to call?

> ControlDraw, as an OSS project, might become successful but how can
> you build a for-profit company on a model where nobody pays anything
> for ControlDraw?
...
> The authors of ControlDraw won't have any special advantage (other
> than perhaps a minor marketing advantage of having their name on the
> software) in this well served market.

That, which implies that they're very familiar with the product, and being the first, which has its own advantages. Marketing advantages count.

In general, though, the playing field will be much more level, with other consultants competing with them on a pretty much equal basis. Like I wrote, that's the painful 5%...

> Besides, developing ControlDraw is a different skill set than deciding
> what boxes to draw using ControlDraw.

It's a consultancy that the website already offers; but yes, it is.

Jiri
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools

By Francis Lovering on 10 April, 2003 - 2:30 pm

<<I don't recall ever having bought a program for my own use (including
professional
use) that required any consulting to use. If it did, I probably wouldn't use
it. I think that enabling people to do complex tasks without consulting is
the primary benefit of the majority of software that is sold (or downloaded
for free for that matter).>>

Well, I have seen an awful lot of people using Word, Excel and Access that could do with a lot of consulting - or at least training.

<<the expertise isn't in the drawing of the boxes themselves, but in knowing
which boxes to draw. I don't think any software can help with that.>>

I agree the first sentence but I beg to differ with the second. Yes, there is expertise knowing what to put on a diagram, but examples and some
automated functions can help greatly. And there are ControlDraw users who have told me that they learned a lot about S88 from using the software. (Not that it gives you S88 in a box, there is no such thing.)

<<ControlDraw, as an OSS project, might become successful but how can
you build a for-profit company on a model where nobody pays anything
for ControlDraw?>>

Quite so.

As a consultant I often spend time developing models and functions (outside ControlDraw) that greatly speed up the production of DCS/PLC/HMI software from a ControlDraw model. That is paid directly as consulting charges. Suppose instead that I were to spend 1000 hours improving the software to add the capability to generate their automation software directly from a ControlDraw model without the users having to employ me as a consultant. How would I get paid for that other than by charging for the software?

Francis

By Michael Griffin on 8 April, 2003 - 3:00 pm

On April 7, 2003 12:50, Ralph Mackiewicz wrote: <clip>
> Are
> there any successful commercial open source product companies outside
> of the operating system markets?
<clip>

IBM? Sun? AOL? All three use and support open source software as part of their business strategy (Linux/Apache, OpenOffice/StarOffice, Mozilla/Netscape) . Their business strategy doesn't consist of selling boxes of software though.

Open source software seems to have a fit in a few main areas. The biggest is in professional grade low to mid range commodity IT services (operating systems, databases, web servers, etc.). This sort of software business is like the restaurant business. The food all grows in the same fields - it's how they cook it and serve it that's their real business. The food itself sells for little more than the cost of production (or even less).

That doesn't mean that all food businesses are a restaurant business (or a farm). There are grocery stores, bakeries, etc., etc. They are all a bit different. You can even drive out to the farm and buy it direct yourself.

So the question is, what is your business model, and does it make sense for your market? Are you trying to sell a commodity at bespoke prices? Really, this is the issue - open source is the symptom not the cause. Basic PC hardware became a commodity, it shouldn't be too surprising that basic PC software (operating system, database, etc.) appears to be headed the same way.

I suppose what we should be asking is what segments of the automation software market look like they could become commoditised? Low end MMI systems perhaps?

************************
Michael Griffin
London, Ont. Canada
************************

By Alex Pavloff on 8 April, 2003 - 4:55 pm

Michael Griffin wrote:
> I suppose what we should be asking is what segments of the
> automation software market look like they could become commoditised? Low
end MMI
> systems perhaps?

I doubt it. Low end (sub $500 dollar range is my thinking) HMI hardware is about driving hardware costs down by picking low-end parts and driving up
volume. When you pick low end hardware, you limit your programming choices. When you increase volume, you can afford to go with a custom solution.

Besides, the main hurdle to open source in automation is that there isn't any large body of open source automation code out that people want to use. Sure, there are dribs and drabs here and there, but not enough to make anyone go "Ooo! If I use this code it'll save me lots of time!"

Alex Pavloff - apavloff@eason.com
Eason Technology -- www.eason.com

By Curt Wuollet on 9 April, 2003 - 1:50 pm

Hi Alex

For what I have been doing, I would most certainly say "Ooo" OSS saves me a lot of time. When I can do a camera application with only a page or two of my own code, or embed a whole terminal emulator with a few changes I need, it saves me a lot of time. And combining a few parts in ways you simply can't do with binaries lets you do rather powerful integration and system glue in much less time than starting from scratch, or writing around commercial libraries. And for applications, finding something close and using it as a starting point can save lots of time as well. It depends on what you are doing, but, OSS saves me enough that I seldom do anything from scratch, it just doesn't make sense not to use it when it's available. There is quite a bit that I find not to my liking, but there are usually several to choose from for any given function. And for those of us who will admit to the occasional bug or two, using large chunks of _running_ code is a great timesaver. Add to that the fact that I can find examples of those many things I don't know or remember, and I greatly prefer to make good use of OSS. It lets an old *NIX hacker like myself do some pretty neat stuff.

Of course, when you do it that way, you have to comply with the GPL, but since I almost never do code to be resold, the point is moot. None of the machines I've done run any differently because the code needs to be OSS _if published_. If you sell software, rather than code solutions, YMMV as usual.

Regards

cww

By Michael Griffin on 9 April, 2003 - 1:51 pm

On April 8, 2003 12:54, Alex Pavloff wrote: <clip>
> Michael Griffin wrote:
> > I suppose what we should be asking is what segments of the
> > automation software market look like they could become commoditised? Low
> > end MMI systems perhaps?

Alex Pavloff replied:
> I doubt it. Low end (sub $500 dollar range is my thinking) HMI hardware is
> about driving hardware costs down by picking low-end parts and driving up
> volume. When you pick low end hardware, you limit your programming
> choices. When you increase volume, you can afford to go with a custom
> solution.

I wasn't referring to "MMI Panels". I see that as a different market segment with a lot of differences between them and PCs besides just price. They are designed to be something any competent industrial electrician can troubleshoot and replace (just like a PLC). That's more of a "system" feature rather than something software alone can give you.

I was however referring to the segment at the bottom end of the market where an actual PC is required for some reason. You will notice that there is very regular discussion here on how to use VB (or Delphi), or even (shudder) Excel as an MMI development system. The usual reasons given are the need for a programmable system that has low capital costs for the development software and (often) royalty free run times.

There does seem to be a demand which isn't being met by existing systems for some reason and which an open source solution may fit. This isn't something I would have a need for myself, but I can't but help noticing people asking for something like it.

> Besides, the main hurdle to open source in automation is that there isn't
> any large body of open source automation code out that people want to use.
> Sure, there are dribs and drabs here and there, but not enough to make
> anyone go "Ooo! If I use this code it'll save me lots of time!"
<clip>

However, that isn't the only way for something to arise. I see a more likely origin to be where someone finds a software development system which was intended for another application but is fairly close to what is needed for a useful MMI development package. All that may be needed is to add on a few GUI widgets and other minor bits (strip chart, etc.) to get something that is good enough for a lot of purposes (or at least better than VB).

I can't give you an detailed example of how to do this, as I haven't been doing any research on something I don't need. However, building user interfaces quickly and easily is a fairly common software development task, so we shouldn't be surprised to find something that fits the bill.

************************
Michael Griffin
London, Ont. Canada
************************

Michael Griffin:
> I see a more likely origin to be where someone finds a software
> development system which was intended for another application but is
> fairly close to what is needed for a useful MMI development package.
> All that may be needed is to add on a few GUI widgets and other minor
> bits (strip chart, etc.) to get something that is good enough for a
> lot of purposes (or at least better than VB).

> I can't give you an detailed example of how to do this, as I haven't
> been doing any research on something I don't need. However, building
> user interfaces quickly and easily is a fairly common software
> development task, so we shouldn't be surprised to find something that
> fits the bill.

To give an example, MatPLC uses the glade tool for this, without modification. A little wizard will give you things to quickpaste into glade (one thing per widget to be connected to a MatPLC register). Other than that, you can use anything in glade (menus to pop up windows, etc).

A couple of days ago, somebody added... a multi-channel plot widget. I haven't had a chance to play with it yet, though.

Jiri
--
Jiri Baum <jiri@baum.com.au> http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~jirib
MAT LinuxPLC project --- http://mat.sf.net --- Machine Automation Tools

By Michael R. Batchelor on 9 April, 2003 - 1:53 pm

Most of this is because the engineers in the plan think of the custom portion for their problem. Not the generic portion that fits everyone's problem.

For example, suppose I have 3 customers who want an HMI on their lines. One line makes widgets, one makes whiz-bangers, and one makes cardboard boxes for the other two. All three customers use BrandX PLCs to control their line.

In the proprietary world I can use BrandX's in-house HMI, Intellution, Wonderware, CiTect, or others. But each choice has a custom component and a generic component. The generic component is the drivers for BrandX PLC and the development environment. The custom component is the application for that specific plant.

The body of code that's missing for an OSS solution is the generic part. Even if it all existed, I'd still have to do the work for the custom component at each plant.

So, the place where we are now is about where the OSS world stood when Richard Stallman first started the GNU project and was working on gcc. There is a little code out there - Ron Gage comes to mind - but not enough to make a complete replacement for the generic part of the solution.

In the Linux world, nothing really took off until three components were in place. GNU had a solid gcc for a while, the Linux kernel worked reasonable well, and then GNU released glibc. The release of glibc was the event where all the pieces fell into place to make a real freely distributable OS.

Analogously, what's required to make an OSS HMI take off is a good set of PLC drivers - unlikely while AB wants money for DH+ code[1], a good set of symbols for drawing pictorial representations of items in a production system, and an IDE to tie them together in a way comprehensible to most plant engineering staffs.

[1]I say this because, like it or not, AB has the lion's share of the PLC market (at least in the US) and in that subgroup the lion's share of "communication" is by DH+ using some variant of a KT or KTX card.

MB

By Curt Wuollet on 8 April, 2003 - 4:19 pm

Hi Ralph

It's all in your perspective. People who do automation for other people, already derive almost nothing from reselling software and little enough on hardware to be competitive. Services is where they make their money. Even in house, time is the biggie. So, it's only natural that what's good for automation folks, might not be as good for vendors. It's how you slice the pie. What is surprising though, is that this doesn't seem to color the discussion much. Largely, with a few exceptions, folks here argue strenuously for what's best for the vendors. The best we can hope for is a balance. With people who are willing or capable to do less and pay more, and people who are willing and capable to do more and keep more of the pie. There will always be people who need the simplest possible solution and are willing to
pay big bucks for it. But, I do think there is room for the other variety as well and many, many, applications that are simply not well served by canned solutions. OSS will be in the picture, but we don't have a problem with sharing.

Regards

cww (you all know what I do)