There's a quiet revolution going on in the world of software development.
It's called open source, and its supporters say it could lead to better-quality software at cheaper prices.
The principle behind open source is that the source code - the readable instructions that make up a software program - is made publicly available to any interested developers on the web so they can look through it, add their own code and contribute improvements and updates.
This is fundamentally different to the way the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and Sage compile their software. Operating systems, databases and applications from these established suppliers are created in-house by dedicated teams of developers, and the code is kept secret.
The concept of open source grew out of the activities of a small band of idealistic programmers in the mid-1980s who wanted to build quality, free software that rivalled products produced by the big software companies they thought were exploiting users.
Relying on a disparate band of unpaid techies to come up with business-strength software may seem a long shot, but 15 years down the line and, according to Mark Brier, a team leader in the open source laboratories at the National Computing Centre (NCC), open source software has become a serious commercial proposition backed by major companies and adopted by many businesses.
In fact, recent UK research from the NCC found that two-thirds of the 140 senior IT professionals quizzed expected their organisations to develop an open source strategy in the next five years.
While numerous applications specific to the hospitality sector are in development, none are as mature as some of the generic open source applications that businesses are already using in anger. These applications include Linux, the most popular open source operating system, Open Office or Star Office, open source packages similar to Microsoft's Office, and Apache, an open source web server that allows web pages to be published.
Brier says the key benefits of using open source are reduced costs, flexibility and the superior quality of the software.
"The people who are developing this software are the same people who are using it," he says. "Open source software is developed with users in mind and is therefore easier and better to use."
At Linux service provider Red Hat, director of global marketing Paul Salazar claims the open source operating system is more secure than Microsoft Windows because it has "security built into its core" and is less of a target for virus writers.
This, he says, means firms will have to spend less on securing IT systems over time, an increasingly important consideration for IT departments.
Cost savings also come from the fact that, in most cases, users of open source products don't have to pay a licence fee for the software, because it is regarded as public property.
However, many of these savings will be swallowed up paying for support and consultancy services to maintain the software. In its rawest forms, open source software can simply be downloaded from the web and installed, but a lot of businesses do not have the technological ability in-house to support these products.
Well-known IT companies such as Red Hat, Novell and IBM have stepped into this void and now offer a range of support services that include telephone assistance, update patches and ongoing maintenance.
This is a new business model for the software industry: people don't pay for the product per se but the services they require to support it. And the more they understand the software the more they can reduce the level of support and costs.
For many companies, not having adequate support was the biggest inhibitor to adopting open source, according to Noomane Fehri, head of the innovation team at business consultancy Atos Consulting. But with these household names backing the software, he says, the adoption of open source is set to rocket.
Fehri also points to the flexibility offered by open source products as another selling point. Linux, for example, can run on a number of different hardware platforms using processors from Intel and AMD and different flavours of the UNIX operating system and mainframe systems. This means companies don't need to get locked into one platform.
But it is exactly because much of the hospitality industry is tied in to a limited number of products that it has been slow to adopt open source products specifically written for the sector, says Luke Mellors, head of IT at the Dorchester hotel group.
Much of the market space, he says, is owned by three or four vendors, such as Fidelio and Springer Miller, which produce the property management systems that all other applications, such as point of sale and reservations systems, feed off. The pain of migrating from these systems has led many in the industry to not consider open source products thus far.
"There hasn't been a major push towards open source, because we are locked into vendors. We don't have the choices, because the vendors have created a culture where open source can't get a look-in," Mellors says.
But there are open source applications catering for the hospitality sector. A visit to one of the main open source community websites, www.sourceforge.net, reveals a number of projects in progress for reservations systems and hotel accounting packages.
One finished product is called PHP-Residence, created by Italian guesthouse owner Marco de Santis in conjunction with a number of volunteer software developers.
De Santis says he uses it to manage his own property and that the application has been adopted free of charge by a number of hotels as far apart as Crete and Melbourne. De Santis has now launched a paid-for hosting service for the software.
At Atos Consulting, Fehri recommends that hospitality companies interested in finding out more about open source software should start by surfing the internet and reading up on the subject.
"Also don't be afraid to ask your software supplier whether they can offer you an open source option," he says. "They should know about it, and it may mean you can reduce your costs."
Established open source programs
- Linux: An operating system initially created as a hobby by a young student, Linus Torvalds, now embraced by the likes of IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Red Hat (www.linux.org).
- Apache: The world's most popular web server is the open source Apache (www.apache.org).
- Open Office: An open source office suite that is free to download (www.openoffice.org).
- Star Office: An open source office suite that comes with a paid-for support structure from Sun Microsystems (www.sun.com).
- Mozilla: An open source web browser. A pared-down version is called Firefox, while an e-mail client has been named Thunderbird (www.mozilla.org).
- MySQL: The world's most popular open source database (www.mysql.com).
Open source: pros and cons
- Reduced licence costs.
- Increased flexibility: software is less platform-specific and can be customised.
- Potentially more secure.
- More innovation from developers' community.
- Increased need to access third-party support.
- It may not be the industry standard.
- It's not yet trusted, established software.
Open source information