Annual awards source of pride

By Adam Gifford

Ross Ihaka. Photo / Supplied
Ross Ihaka. Photo / Supplied

It's time for the annual New Zealand Open Source Awards, and the 31 finalists show an extraordinary range of innovation and collaboration.

Among the three nominations for best open source project are: SilverStripe, a New Zealand-made content management system that has been downloaded more than 325,000 times globally in less than four years; Kete, a digital library project, and R, a programming language and software environment that has become the lingua franca for statistical computing and graphics.

Ross Ihaka from the University of Auckland started developing R 20 years ago, but it took off about a decade ago as the internet picked up speed. He said the university wanted to commercialise it.

"We got as far as buying a book on business and we could have gone that way and there would have been half a dozen people in Auckland using the software. Now there are thousands," Ihaka says.

He says open sourcing it means some of the best brains on the planet help to maintain and develop it.

"These guys are at a level where money is not a motivation."

R was developed when statisticians had far less computing power to work with, and Ihaka is now working on tools to handle the data rates of today and tomorrow.

"We are now getting exabytes of information. Numbers flow in like a river. You have to reduce it down to something you can handle with a computer."

Nominations in the open source use in business category include Ponoko, which describes itself as the hub of a global personal manufacturing eco-system that brings together creators, digital fabricators, materials suppliers and buyers.

Co-founder David Ten Have says apart from using open source software to build its applications, Ponoko uses the same principles to change the design business.

"We use creative commons licences so we encourage designers to use open source to get their names out there. Obscurity is a greater risk than foregoing licensing revenue."

He says it's expensive and difficult for new designers to get licences or patents, and there is next to no certainty they would be respected.

"For things like medical products or drugs they are totally appropriate, but not for young designers."

Ponoko makes money through manufacturing and materials. Designed as an international company, it has production nodes in Wellington, Oakland, Milan, Berlin and London making things such as electronics, jewelry, and even models for architects.

Ten Have says there are now about 30,000 users. "We are starting to see users getting high five-figure and six-figure revenue," he says.

With Ponoko, people can start businesses carrying only a few weeks of inventory and can get access to expensive equipment like laser cutters.

Another firm bringing open source to business is Adaxa, which has pulled together a complete suite of applications including enterprise resource planning, customer relations, document management, web-content management, business intelligence and telephony.

Founder Peter Milsom was working as a consultant, advising blue chip companies on systems and implementation, when he came across an open source accounting package called Compiere. "I went up to Boston in 2003 and did the training, and we became partners," he says.

Milson said he was struggling to find solutions that left enough room for new initiatives, once clients had finished paying for licences and installation.

"As the web started to emerge as a business environment, you also had disjunctive licensing schemes where you were paying per processor, so when you wanted to head out to the web it was hard to formulate an economic answer."

He says the Adaxa Suite aims to meet about 90 per cent of the common needs of 90 per cent of businesses. The other 10 per cent is where the company pays for its lunch, by providing professional services such as installing software and training users. Also, any extensions made to users' products get put back into the original project, so the suite grows in power and scope.

Development was done initially under Milsom's McBoss label, but he swapped it for part of Australian firm Adaxa to get the business going further, faster.

Resolve Digital, which has offices in Christchurch and San Francisco, is nominated for the contribution it is making to Refinery, a content-management system for developers who use Ruby on Rails to build their web applications.

Developer Philip Arndt says Resolve developed Refinery because it couldn't find a suitable CMS for the websites and applications it was building for clients, and open sourced it in May last year.

"Since then, about 60 or 70 programmers have contributed to the code, so it's a win win for us and our clients," says Arndt.

He says Refinery is user-focused: "Our clients can do quite sophisticated stuff to maintain their own websites without having to come back to us."

The winners will be announced on November 9. Vote on the People's Choice category at www.nzosa.org.nz/

adamgifford5@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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