IT Trends & OSS

There is little doubt that computers play a major role in all spheres of societies today in spite of the challenging arguments of Carr (2004) in a Harvard Business Review article that the competitive advantage of IT is diminishing (Handzic & Zhou, 2005:60).

Introduction

There is hardly any business who doesn’t make use of either a server solution or Desktop computers to conduct there businesses. hardware software

Computers have come a long way since the introduction of the personal computer.  Many will believe that computers are only about 19 to 20 years old (especially in the South African context), but the first computing device (difference engine) was developed by Charles Babbage in around 1834.  Since then, computer hardware and software systems have gone through major trends and developments.  One just has to realise that computers used by businesses, before the introduction of the PC, was huge expensive machinery, often located in huge offices and basements.  These computers were often referred to as mainframes.  At the time, they were capable of computing huge amounts of information, but the processing power that is available today, even to the smaller Notebook and Tablet formats of pc’s, have the “processing power that is equivalent to an organization’s entire computing centre of the 1960’s” (Brown et.al. 2009:2). 

Since the development of the computer IC (integrated circuit), hardware developed exponentially.  It is not uncommon for computer components to become outdated in the same year it was introduced, due to the advancements in developments.  It is no wonder that companies opt to lease computers rather than outright buying to make the most of these advancements.

The same applies to an extent to software.  With the worldwide development of pc’s, the availability of information via the Internet, more and more developers entered the field of computer science.  It is common practice that computer software developers release builds and new versions of their software on a regular basis.  Microsoft, who arguably “owns” 70% of the operating system market worldwide, releases patches and new builds virtually daily and often get criticised at the tempo of releasing software updates too regularly.  At the turn of the century, Windows Millennium was released and was followed up in a short space of time with Windows XP.

With this brief introduction, this article will look at the trends in hard- and software developments but especially what consequences these developments have on business and Information Management.

Hardware Developments

Apart from the mainframes, which was used selectively in huge organizations, the hardware developments only really took off since the inception of the microcomputer in the 1970’s.  This again led to the huge “explosion” of developments with the introduction of the personal computer in 1981.  This paved the way for desktop computing to become affordable not only too big organizations but to every desktop of an employee and eventually to millions of individuals (home users) across the world. 

Desktop computers were also called micro-computers due to the micro-chip which was used, commonly known today as the CPU (Central Processing Units).  After industry changes took place, Intel became the major developer of CPU’s with other role-players like AMD and Apple Macintosh.   Intel’s CPUs went through major changes and developments with their developments on the microchip.  One just need to compare the speed and power of the 386 chip (in kilohertz) we used in the late 1980’s to the Dual Core E6700 chip, containing “291 million transistors” (Brown et.al. 2009:24) and running at approximately 2.4 GHz, to realise the speed at which the developments took place.  “The doubling of the processing power of computers every 18 months, known as "Moore's Law" after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel in 1965, is the equivalent of computing power increasing by a factor of 100 every l0 years” (Clarke 2001:191).

Not only did the power increased exponentially, also the size of CPUs became much smaller, which again paved the way for smaller form computers like the Notebook and Tablet pc’s.  Comparing the size of the IBM XT 386 and 486 in the late 1980’s to the Pentium 3, 4, 5 and lately Dual Core and Core2Duo CPU’s show clearly how this component developed. 

The processing power also paved the way for developments in the operating systems.  Where the older Intel 386 CPU’s run on a DOS operating system, the development of MMX technology made it possible for better handling of graphics, which led to the introduction of graphical operating systems (Windows) and GUIs (Graphical User Interface).  This in turn opened up the possibilities for major gaming and video capabilities up to the possibilities of publishing podcasts to an online community today.

Other hardware advancements like wireless connectivity, PDA’s (personal digital assistant) and scanners all followed the same trend of advancements which changed the way we do business today. 

Another field of hardware advancements with major effects on companies and business are the possibilities and tools that became available for communication and collaboration.  In the early years of the Internet, email was a “message in another user's directory in a spot where they could see it when they logged in. ...Just like leaving a note on someone's desk” (Peter; 2004).  Since then, email communication is now probably the primary method of communication in business.  Ferris research estimates that 780 million business users use email on a daily basis.  This development caused a need for more collaboration tools.  Today individuals and organizations can communicate and collaborate through email, net meeting, webcams, chat and the latest trend, virtual meetings across the world.

This article would like to focus on another technological development which is having a major impact on business and communication, namely the developments in telecommunications and more specifically, VOIP (Voice over IP).  Many IT workers won’t include telecommunications under the “IT umbrella” but with the trend and developments in this field, also in the areas where telecommunications and IT overlap and inter-operate (like VOIP, blueberry, synchronizing with desktops), telecommunication can easily be termed under IT. hardware

The first company to introduce the ability to make voice calls using IT was VocalTel in 1995.  At that stage it still used analogue lines and had to interoperate with modems.  Since the development in broadband technology, VOIP became more popular.  In 2003, Skype launched their software and by using VOIP technology, provided its users the ability to make cheap internet calls.  Since then, many companies saw the advantages of VOIP and are looking to implement it in their telecommunications infrastructure.  WorldNet claims that VOIP will account for 25% - 40% of international voice traffic in 2005.

VOIP is simply a technology that enables a person to make a voice call using internet technology, specifically the Internet Protocol (IP).  VOIP therefore converts voice to digital data to transmit the call over an IP network to the receiver.  By using IP, it uses already established infrastructure and can therefore be free or at least much cheaper than current call costs.  Typically it will be implemented on a LAN of an organization, but the service can also be extended to transmit across the internet.

The major benefits of using VOIP are the savings on call costs and the options to make users more telephonically reachable.  A local company, VBX, claims that they were able to record savings of up to 50% on national calls.  One needs to look critically at these claims as the implementation cost has the potential to rationalize these savings.  Because the handset costs are proportionally high (from R1,000 per basic handset), it is important to evaluate the bulk of an organization’s calls.  If the bulk is local, it seems as if the savings will not be that much, due to the implementation cost.  The recorded savings were in respect of organizations that has remote offices.  These calls are made, following a “Least Cost Routing” scheme and results in being “no-cost” calls due to a WAN network of an organization.  Another feature which is much sought after is the features of routing an office call to a user’s mobile phone while out of the office at a local cost.  But again, this can only be done by also implementing SIP capable mobile phones, currently costing in excess of R5,000 per unit.  As the handsets and cost of implementation comes down, this will make a major impact on organizations as their networking technologies are often already implemented.  There are other additional benefits such as voice messages delivered to a user’s local email client, and sending a voice message.

Although VOIP offer many advantages, it also still has many challenges like security, integration with other technologies and protocols, governmental regulations and voice latency (Sussman 2007).

All these developments have obvious advantages to the world we live in, but it also has its disadvantages.  Just to mention a few, the developments and trends in mobile communication make us available all the time everywhere, while people need to be unavailable, for example during holidays.  Most people can rarely go without email anymore, but the time and bandwidth that are wasted by spam mail (unsolicited commercial advertising), are costing business millions per year (Yale University estimates as high as 90% of email filtered as spam).  Of every development listed above, one can expand on equal disadvantages.  It is therefore imperative that we use and appreciate these technological tools with appropriate etiquette in mind.

Software Developments

Major technological advancements on the hardware had obviously also an effect on software.  It is because of hardware advancements that software developers could program applications to make use of the advancements.  The reverse is also true, it is often because of software advancements that hardware had to develop to stay in touch and offer those facilities provided by software developments.  One can therefore say that hardware and software have a reciprocal effect on each other.

This article already showed the effect that the advancements had on operating systems, which is in essence software.  The same applies to the development of VOIP software, email clients and collaboration applications which all have hardware and a software components.  Other major software developments are the use of Interactive Voice Response (IVR), which is more and more implemented by business, especially helpdesks and support desks and the extensive use of Office applications.  Another major development which impacts the way business operates are the advancements in server software and the services these software provides, for example databases, mail servers, print servers, firewalls and document management systems.

The next major development is on Web applications and Web 2.0.  Web 2.0 was the next generation development of web and internet protocols that made sharing and collaboration much more accessible to everyone, thereby creating the opportunities for social networking, web-based communities, forums and blogs.  These developments impacted business as the client-server side web applications brought online transactions, data mining and other informational systems with it.  A consequence of these Web 2.0 developments is the development of Content Management Systems (CMS).  A content management system (CMS) is a software application or processes which manages and updates the content of a web site.  Robertson defines a CMS as a system that “supports the creation, management, distribution, publishing, and discovery of corporate information” (Robertson, J: 2003).  This shows that with the development of Web 2.0, organizations can easily create, manage distribute and publish corporate information to a much wider context at a fraction of the cost that was previously available.  It is now possible for anybody in an organization to participate in creating and publishing content, thereby participating in knowledge dissemination.  Another benefit of CMS is the ability to index, organize and share information quicker and easier.   Because content is organized according to consistent metadata structures, the finding of content is thereby improved.  Lastly, CMS has the ability to not only effect the sharing of information, but also make Digital Asset Management and Document Management available to organizations. 

Web 2.0 software developments also made many other online collaboration options available to internet users like blogging, wikis, communities of practice and social networking which obviously affects business and its employees on a global scale.

Probably the biggest effect software trends will have on business, and more-so in the current “credit crunch”, is Open Source Software (OSS).  Open source software and solutions have a great opportunity to survive and benefit in this economy as they provide better returns for the companies that are looking to save huge licensing costs and greater availability of solutions and software that can be easily adopted”  (manjukg blog).  The Mark Shuttleworth Foundation has launched a major campaign in 2007 (Go Open Source) to convince Government of the benefits of Open Source Software (OSS).  The Malaysian Government has opted “to move all public administration to Open Source software” (Lynch 2008) and president Barack Obama asked Sun to explain how the US government can benefit from OSS (Asay 2009).

OSS has its root in the GNU Foundation, started in 1984, to provide free software.  Stallman (2008) explains that free software is not (necessarily) free in pricing, but the freedom of changing and distributing the source code as one wishes.  The emphasis is on sharing the source code, “the GPLv2 just says that you have to give source code back” (Bryfield 2007).  “Open-source software puts the right to make changes to the software in the hands of the public, rather than a company” (Devaney; 2009).  The aim of GNU was to develop a free Unix-like operating system and software.

But, when one talks about free software, everybody thinks it’s about Linux.  Linux is not GNU and vice versa.  Linux is an operating system developed by Linus Torvald and forms part of the GNU open source development.  Exactly because of the GNU mission, the source code was shared and distributed, resulting in many distributions (called distros) of the Linux source code (Gentoo, Red Hat, Fedora, SuSe etec).  Some of these distributions come even at a price, emphasising that it doesn’t necessarily mean free.  Linux forms part of the GNU project of Open Source Software and is the operating system part thereof.

The licensing costs for the Windows platform are a major concern for business, especially in the support and maintenance costs thereof.  Business in South Africa launched a campaign after the turn of the century (BSA) to get rid of pirated software and get legal.  Russia, for example, has been listed as the country with the most pirated software, but the Russian government “has hit out at Microsoft, claiming the software giant's overly strict and costly licensing regime is to blame for the high rates of consumer piracy in the country” (McCue, A 2007).   Gartner also warned business in 2004 that licensing costs can rise with up to 50% in 2006 because of technological advancements.

This is because four emerging trends in hardware threaten the traditional pricing model used by Oracle, IBM, Sybase and many other software companies based on hardware capacity or central processing unit (CPU).  
The trends include:

  • The move towards multi-core chip architectures
  • The move to virtualise hardware resources across physical servers
  • Growing availability of servers to support capacity on demand
  • Increased interest in rapid provisioning tools (Gartner 2004).

Cassey Bisson, for example, raises a question (How Expensive Does Commercial Software Need To Get Before We Consider Open Source?) and makes consequently a point for OSS software.

Although OSS is free, it’s still an open question whether organizations will benefit from migrating to OSS without proper investigation, as support and re-training of its users might be a costly exercise.  The biggest caveat of OSS currently is the availability of support and the choice and availability of appropriate business software.  Because of the economical benefit, it is fairly obvious that most developers would prefer developing for the Windows platform than contributing in an environment where their source code must be shared and distributed freely.  But, all is not lost for the OSS software development as Mark Shuttleworth “believes that Open Source development is the best way to stimulate innovation because collaboration and participation are encouraged”.  By encouraging the migration to OSS, both caveats can be resolved over time.  The big question in this “money-making” world will still be “Who pays for software development or developers?”  We’ve seen that advertising is a major source of income on the internet, much to the frustration of many users.  Mark Shuttleworth however, sees that compensation of development should rather come from services provided by developers and companies, rather from software licensing costs.  Red Hat is such a company who license its server software at a fraction of the cost of Microsoft, but making money from the added services and support they provide to its users.  Their further research and development of its open source software is done in the Fedora project.  An open source blogger, Matthew Aslett (2006) researched this question and found that development costs are mostly funded by investors and enterprise customers.  Looking at the companies involved in funding OSS, the question can be asked whether the profits from licensing are not, albeit partly, funding OSS.  Bryan Lunduke (2009) is actually stating exactly that on his blog at ludeke.com.  “I challenge you to run a Linux desktop without any code that has ever benefited directly from the funds provided by proprietary software” (Lunduke 2009: Who pays for OSS?).

If this is true then, how can the future of OSS and licensed software play out?  It might be, for example, that software will become free for personal use or that source code of licensed software (maybe even Windows) is released to the GNU Foundation, making software in future to be free, or at least much cheaper as now.   It is therefore clear that software development trends, and especially OSS, “is going to be on everyone's agenda” (Asay 2009). It will be interesting to see how these trends will influence the future of licensed and OSS software.  The possibilities are endless.

Conclusion

This article discussed the technological developments and trends in hardware and software trends and the effect these advancements have on business.  It is clear that most businesses would not be able to operate and compete equally without embracing Information Technology.  But it is also clear that these Technological tools and advancements do come with a price (pun intended).

Nevertheless, hardware and software development trends have the following effects on business (Brown et.al): 

  • New ways compete in the global market place
  • Because of more processing power, more data can be stored, searched and retrieved quicker
  • Lower input cost for the automation of business processes
  • Computer Aided tools for the development of complex engineering designs
  • Web applications which opened up the global economy, giving the possibility of marketing to a much bigger clientele base

New ways of managing human capital, for example more flexible working hours or working from a remote location due to the availability of email & messaging, VOIP and related technologies, quicker response times, virtual teams and a broader online community for problem-solving.

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References

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