NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 86 August 14, 2002
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Beyond the Bells
Open Source in the Nonprofit Sector
About NetAction Notes

Beyond the Bells

In a recent white paper, NetAction predicted that the four remaining regional Bell phone monopolies would find it increasingly difficult to repay their collective $135 billion debt as their revenue stream from traditional telephone services eroded in response to the growing availability of alternative networks and technologies. As financial problems continue to plague the entire U.S. telecommunications industry, the future of the four remaining Bell monopoly phone companies grows increasingly uncertain.

But the Bells retain monopoly control of crucial communications facilities, including the "last-mile" connection between the telecommunications network and nearly all homes and businesses. What becomes of the telephone network is important because: 1) the communications network is an important element of our social fabric, and 2) the Bells control one of the two major broadband Internet access technologies (digital subscriber line service, or DSL).

In a new white paper, "The World Beyond the Bells," NetAction advisory board member Judi Clark describes how current and perceived threats to the stability of the telecommunications network are causing an ad hoc social movement to emerge. New wireless technologies are evolving to empower this social movement, which in turn is challenging the monopoly power of the Bells.

The third in NetAction's "Networks for the Future" project, "The World Beyond the Bells" examines the many factors that will affect the uses and successes of these new technologies, and the opportunities that will arise if competition is allowed to thrive in the telecommunications marketplace.

Open Source in the Nonprofit Sector

Editor's Note: Former NetAction intern Theresa Chen wrote the following article after attending the Third Annual "Grassroots Use of the Internet" conference held earlier this summer at Yale University.

Earlier this year, the Third Annual "Grassroots Use of the Internet" conference united over 115 activists and technological professionals at Yale University to discuss the utilization of technology in the nonprofit sector. The Organizers' Collaborative, a nonprofit membership organization of technically-oriented grassroots activists, and the Double Bottom Line, an organization of Yale University students interested in the public and nonprofit sectors, co-sponsored the conference.

The day-long conference featured workshops and case studies on technology planning, funding issues, and innovative approaches to cyber-activism. Two sessions of particular interest fell under the "Free Software/Open Source" category. The presenters, Phil Glaser of Sustainable Software Solutions, LLC, and Reuben Silvers of the Nonprofit Open-Source Initiative, discussed the role of the often-overlooked open-source solution in the nonprofit sector.

What is "open-source"? Every piece of software, from a basic word processing program to a complex operating system, runs on programmed directions, called "source code," or just "source" for short. Software companies often copyright their source code, making it proprietary and unavailable to the public. With open-source software, however, the source code is completely accessible; anyone may view, download, comment on or suggest modifications at any time. Popular examples of open-source software include the Linux operating system, the Mozilla web browser, and the Zope content management system.

Open-source software has many benefits over proprietary software, especially for the nonprofit sector. Proprietary software may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars; maintenance, upgrades, support, and additional licenses add further costs. Most open-source software is free or very low-cost - good news to nonprofits, for which funding always an important issue. Most documentation and support for open-source software is also free, available through websites, newsgroups, and mailing lists (though some support, such as Redhat's support for its version of Linux, has some cost.)

The most popular open-source projects - those with a few years of history behind them, such as Linux - may be more stable, secure, and reliable than their proprietary counterparts. At the conference, Reuben Silvers, co-founder of the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI), cited a study by Bloor Research that compared the number of times that Linux and Windows NT crashed on the same Pentium machine over the course of a year. Linux crashed once; Windows NT crashed 68 times.

Users of proprietary software often have to wait for a new version release before the problems with the software are resolved. With the popular open-source projects, however, many different programmers around the world work on the project simultaneously, allowing bugs to be addressed within a matter of days. Since many of the testers are also programmers who may fix the bugs that they discover, open-source software is continually subjected to "peer review," much as scientists continually review each others' work.

In addition to both affordability and functionality, open-source software shares many of the same principles of the nonprofit sector - even often sharing the ".org" domain. As Silvers explained, both open-source software and nonprofits are "built on volunteerism" and the spirit of cooperating to create a product for the greater good.

In spite of all the benefits, nonprofits have been slow to jump on the open-source bandwagon. Many nonprofits are unaware that the open-source alternative even exists. Those that are aware of it find the learning curve and the retraining daunting. Staff in the nonprofit sector are often behind the for-profit sector in technical skills, and are accustomed to popular proprietary options such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft Windows, and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Open-source software also has problems with compatibility. OpenOffice and AbiWord, for example, come very close to emulating Microsoft Word's document format, but still have problems displaying tables.

Finally, nonprofit organizations sometimes require specialized third-party software that only runs with certain proprietary software. For example, housing nonprofits often require specialized property management packages - projects too large for a consultant and too specialized to generate enough interest in the open-source community. Due to Microsoft Windows' market dominance, corporations develop this specialized software usually only for Windows, and sometimes Macintosh, but rarely UNIX or other platforms. A housing nonprofit utilizing a property management package would then be locked in to using Microsoft Windows, rather than looking at Linux or other open-source operating systems.

The two presentations at the conference on open-source software explored ways for nonprofits to overcome these obstacles. Silvers took a "big picture" view, educating his audience on the pros and cons of open-source, and the possible roles that it might take in nonprofits. Silvers also introduced the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative (NOSI), an organization that he co-founded in 2001 that helps nonprofits to benefit from open-source.

Silvers' presentation evolved into a broader discussion of the direction that open-source activists should take in the nonprofit sector - such as whether groups such as NOSI should focus on programming open-source software for the nonprofit sector, or instead provide training, support, and documentation for nonprofits that seek to incorporate open-source into their technology plan.

In his presentation, Phil Glaser, Principal and Software Architect of Sustainable Software Solutions, LLC, chose another perspective, demonstrating how a particular piece of open-source software could function in a nonprofit. Glaser first explained the use of different open-source collaboration tools, including groupware, which allows groups of people to share tasks, to-do lists, calendars, contacts, and other information, with different permissions for different people. (Microsoft Outlook is an example of a proprietary groupware solution.)

Glaser demonstrated phpGroupware, a free, open-source option. Because phpGroupware is web-based, users and administrators need nothing more than an Internet browser to gain access to the software. As a web-based solution, phpGroupware cuts out licensing fees and any worries about platform compatibility.

Silvers' and Glaser's presentations also demonstrated possible solutions for nonprofits seeking to incorporate open-source software into the organization. As Silvers mentioned, many small enterprises begin the incorporation of open-source into their systems in the back end - with file sharing, web serving, and database management - rather than implementing it on desktop PCs for the end user. Implementing open-source on the back end rather than on a user's desktop gives a nonprofit many of the major benefits of open-source, without requiring significant retraining.

Glaser's presentation also emphasized that open-source software need not be UNIX-based. Many popular open-source programs, such as OpenOffice, AbiWord, and Mozilla, run on Windows and Macintosh systems, in addition to various UNIX platforms. These programs are so well-developed and so similar to the proprietary interfaces that users are used to that their transition to open-source would not be difficult at all. (See examples and a side-by-side comparison.)

As Silvers and Glaser explained in their presentations, the low cost, high stability, and high security are reasons enough to encourage an organization to choose open-source software. The spirit and the ideals of open-source, however, make it even more attractive to nonprofits. While nonprofits have overlooked it in the past because of potential difficulties with training and compatibility, the open-source solution has matured to become a viable and powerful alternative to proprietary software.

For more information see:

The author thanks Phil Glaser, Reuben Silvers, Calvin Lin and Shankar Rao for their help with this article.

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