Open CASCADE: What is Open Source?
Bernard Lang: To start, it will be useful to define some terminology. I make no distinction between open-source software and free software. For me, they are both software programs whose source code is available and accessible to everyone, with authorization to duplicate, modify and redistribute. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are free of cost. For example, Gnat from Ada Core Technologies is an Ada compiler sold with its source code. The company earns money primarily through the services it proposes. It is an economically viable model, although different from the one recommended by companies like Microsoft or Oracle.
Today, we face a paradox. On the one hand, companies adhere to the idea that a free exchange of goods coupled to a free market is a good thing for the economy. On the other, they rely heavily on patents and industrial secrets to avoid divulging information on their products. These security blocks hinder the circulation of information. With open-source software, development is based on the free-exchange model of scientific research: information circulates freely on the Internet and everyone can participate in the improvement of a piece of software. There is collaboration and rivalry, a blending of ideas, then judgement of results by peers. This combination of cooperation and competitiveness has proved to be the most efficient economically.
The software market is by nature monopolistic because of its economic structure. Therefore, it is very much in the interest of companies to adopt open-source applications, since by so doing, they will obtain full control of their IT tools. They will have all they need to adapt the software to their particular situation. In addition, they will no longer depend on outside companies. They will profit from a freedom that also ensures future security. A company cannot accept to be dependent on only one IT supplier for crucial applications. Zero cost is also an obvious advantage of free software. For example, the deployment of over a thousand seats using Windows implies a substantial investment, which is not the case with the Linux operating system. In particular, free software represents a technical and financial advantage for the companies that incorporate these applications in original products.
Finally, governments have realized the advantage of free software because they recommend its use in different administrations (notably in France and the U.S.). Thus, the American Department of Defense will be deploying Linux on a large number of servers. On this side of the ocean, large French accounts are increasingly interested in free software.
Open CASCADE: What are the obstacles to companies adopting free software?
Bernard Lang: First of all, a lack of familiarity with the open-source software model, with its viability and efficiency, which are reflected in the growing number of companies today who produce or develop free software. Only two years ago, companies hid the fact that they used free software; today, they can use it as a sales argument. Another obstacle: IT managers who reassure themselves with so-called "universal" standards, like the Word file format. They adopt an attitude based on the idea that "if everyone uses it, it must be good", thereby ensuring that their responsibility will not be called into question.
There is also the reticence of professionals trained on proprietary software like Windows or Oracle. They have the impression that their competence will be menaced by the arrival of free software in their company. It is one of the direct consequences of product-oriented training. On the contrary, it is necessary to develop broad training programs that will facilitate passing from one software or environment to another. Finally, companies have understandable worries about the longevity of open-source products.
All of these barriers are gradually disappearing. Today, more and more service companies are specialized in the domain of open-source software. I'm thinking, for example, of Alcove or Idealx. Their growth is impressive. Idealx now has over 70 employees after just one year of existence. They attract young engineers who see in these companies another vision of information technology, more modern and much freer.
Open CASCADE: Why is Open CASCADE strategic for the open-source movement?
Bernard Lang: Because it is a project that demonstrates that adopting the free software model provides a competitive advantage. If Matra Datavision had not chosen the open-source solution, it would have been increasingly difficult for the company to impose itself on the industrial 3D market. Economically, the future of CAS.CADE was unclear, not because of any technical or commercial shortcomings, but because the market laws that apply to software invariably create monopolies. Free software re-introduces a competitive situation, one that is particularly beneficial for users and viable for producers. Matra Datavision chose the right path in making its API available in Open Source while maintaining its internal development teams. This enabled ensuring the software's long-term viability, as well as its maturity through a broader development community. This development community is currently the force behind an increase in service activities. In the end, market share has all the chances of growing and Open CASCADE of becoming a dominant product. In the world of IT, the first mover is often the big winner.
Open CASCADE: What is the future of free software?
Bernard Lang: We are going to see the generalization of free software in all industrial sectors, in education, etc. I am confident in the future of free software. The economic model based on it is viable. Nevertheless, in certain specific cases, where a particular know-how tied to a proprietary software is indispensable (trade-specific software), or where the developer community is too small, free software is perhaps not as justifiable. Also, in certain areas like office software, open-source applications need to become more available, and this is currently the trend.
For more information on the AFUL, see http://www.aful.org (the site is in French).