Friday, May 1, 2009

Truly open systems

Yesterday, the WSJ had a glowing article on the role that the public domain software VistA might play in the administration’s efforts to promote electronic health records.

The article highlighted a deployment of VistA by Medsphere of Orange County at Midland Memorial Hospital in Texas. The founders of Medsphere were working to land the Midland deal at the time I was a consultant to the company on its open source strategy. Promoting VistA was also the focus of the trade association I co-founded.

For hospitals that install VistA, they are not bound to any one company: as the WSJ article notes, there are multiple firms that can install and configure the VA software. Medsphere has also released some of its extensions as open source on SourceForge.
The Oracle purchase of Sun notwithstanding, I think open source has a particularly bright future in enterprise software for one reason: data portability. So much of what we do — whether memos in Word or elaborate customer databases — is reduced to information on a hard disk.

If the program that created it is open source, IT managers know they will always be able to get at the data, if by no other means than maintaining the open source code that reads it. If the format is proprietary and the software to read it is proprietary, then there is the strong likelihood that at some point the data will no longer be available — and the firm must hope that it can export or upgrade the data to some other format.

This issue also comes up at the personal level: I have PowerPoint 3.0 slides I can no longer read (which is why I save all notes in RTF format). But the availability of open source solutions is far less useful for a one-man individual or consultant as opposed to an IT department supporting a 1,000- or 10,000-person organization.

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