Bridging the Divide Between Open Source and Enterprise Users

Jonathan MathewsPublic

What if a critical portion of your business strategy were based on a mistaken notion? Of course you’d want to know, right?

If you’ve made the assumption that proprietary enterprise software is superior to open source enterprise software, you’re not alone. And you’re not alone in being mistaken.

The conceptual divide today between open source software and enterprise users can seem like a permanent fixture, bolstered by calcified and prejudiced notions. Yet, it is increasingly likely that your brightest IT future may depend on bridging that conceptual divide. To do so, it is helpful to take a look back at historical examples of the clash between open source and proprietary endeavors. And perhaps there’s no better example than the epic battle between Encarta and Wikipedia.

In the early 1990’s, Microsoft founder Bill Gates launched Encarta, a for-purchase DVD- format encyclopedia complete with sound and graphics. Encarta was created in a top-down, academic way. Much the same way, in fact, that proprietary software is created. It was researched, written, and edited by a team of paid experts at great expense. Although still commercially licensed and proprietary, thanks to emerging DVD technology, the rich media information cost less than similar information in print format. A set of Encarta DVDs cost significantly less (hundreds or even thousands of dollars less) than a set of traditional print-format encyclopedias, and Encarta was perceived as being equally as accurate as the traditional printed encyclopedias. Encarta hugely undercut sales of the leading print encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and it appeared for a time that Encarta would forever dominate that market space. But the mighty Encarta was soon to face a life-or-death challenge from an unlikely rival.

Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in 2001. Wales envisioned a free, online encyclopedia for everyone, written and edited by…everyone. This endeavor (essentially an open source encyclopedia project) was met with derision and ridicule from detractors, who asserted that something created and worked on so freely and openly could not possibly yield a high-quality, accurate product (an argument often put forth about open source software by industry naysayers). Studies found, however, that the rate of accuracy of Wikipedia articles was as good as that of Encarta and Britannica, yet the Wikipedia information cost…nothing.

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