Freeing Up the Software, Malaysian Business

AMONG local open source software advocates, Dr Nah Soo Hoe looks like a typical college professor, complete with beard and thick-rimmed glasses.
Dr Nah is often seen in events extolling the virtues of open source software. With over 15 years of experience in the ICT industry, he is well versed in issues of networking protocols, internetworking and information security.

Perhaps that is the reason he is currently the chair of SIRIM’s Technical Committee on Information Security Standards (ISCG/T5). Dr Nah participates actively as a council member of the Malaysian National Computer Confederation, a local organisation committed to the development of IT Professionals and the creation of an Information-Rich Society.

He currently makes his living as an independent consultant, advising clients in areas of open source software, information system security and e-community deployment.

This issue, mb-e caught up with him to get his opinion on the rising awareness of open source software locally.
Do you consider yourself as a main local open source software advocate?

I don’t know if I am really a main open source advocate locally. I would like to leave that to others to judge. But I am an open source enthusiast, advocate and practitioner.

I was attracted to open source software in the late 90s. Back then, I had always been interested in the Unix networking platform. After the regional economic crisis of 1998, I was looking around for an alternative to Unix. I heard about Linux and decided to try it out.

Due to my familiarity with the Unix system, I found it quite easy to adapt to Linux. I found Linux to be a very good network operating system! It was then it dawned upon me that Linux would be a great thing for our country. Open source allows one to Learn, Innovate and Invent (LIVE). LIVE is an acronym I created to share with others the virtues of open source.

In other words, open source allows a country to ‘LIVE’ (pun intended).
How does open source software promote innovation?

Today, almost everything is driven by software. Software has become a very important import for the country. One can buy software off the shelf, but at the end of the day, we still don’t own the software. We merely buy the licence to use the software.

As we move along towards knowledge-based economy we need to create our own products. However, we are caught in the middle. We are not rich, neither are we impoverished like Vietnam and Laos. But buying someone’s software development is a no-brainer, and it costs a lot in licensing fees. When the crunch comes, as in the 1998 crisis, we will be at the mercy of the huge software giants.

Open source software is a way out of this Catch 22 situation. Open source software allows one access to the source code, the heart of the software. It allows one to modify the program to suit a particular need, thus spurring innovation. Unfortunately our current education system does not encourage much software innovation.
So, would you suggest that our education system be changed?

I am not an educationist and am not qualified to comment on it. But I do feel that our educational institutions and universities should be more liberal and allow freedom of expression. It all boils down to creativity and freedom.

I feel our existing education system is too restrictive.
In your opinion, which is more important: open source software or open standards-based software?

Software standard is considered open when many people are using it and its specifications are revealed to all. Not all open source software is based on open standards. But open source software needs open standards.

Software based on open standards is more important. Without open standards, open source will not survive.
Using open standards-based software, we would not be locked in to a particular software vendor, using proprietary standards. In my opinion, all open source products must allow the freedom to learn and modify the software. Even if there weren’t any open source software, open standards would still be relevant and important to the software industry.

Why does the open source community always pick only on Microsoft?
The open source community should ideally be anti ‘closed source’ software. Nobody has made a real business by doing a pure open source business model.
Microsoft is an obvious target as its products are ubiquitous. Although other vendors like Sun, Oracle and Novell also market closed-source software, they are not as visible as Microsoft.

It is unfortunate that Microsoft appears to be targeted. All the other software companies are also vendors of closed-source software. However, the other software companies are slowly beginning to embrace open source software. Only Microsoft is still holding out.
So you agree open source software lacks a business model?

Not really. One can license software using the Dual Licensing model (copyright owner can distribute the software under more than a single software licensing regime). One good example here is MySQL and Sleepycat.

Dual Licensing allows the possibility of developing a successful business model using open source software.
It is a futile exercise to promote open source software to end-users.

Open source software is ideal for the back office, servers and network servers. In a controlled office environment, open source can be implemented successfully, as long as the system settings are correct.

What is the biggest danger to the software industry?
Inability to LIVE! We need to be able to learn from others, build and improve on existing stuff and ultimately invent new things. The spirit of mutual help and cooperation has to be there.

One grave danger I perceive is that more and more of the IT people graduating from colleges and universities do not really understand the IT basics anymore. This is very dangerous since they will probably only be good at producing end-user applications and not be able to produce core systems. The latter is needed for us to use software to control our modern products and technologies. More and more of technical products are software-controlled nowadays.