By ADAM GIFFORD
New Zealand's addiction to expensive packaged code means it is missing one of the most important developments in the knowledge economy, the rise of open source software.
That's the view of Chris Hegan, general manager of Auckland Linux specialist Asterisk.
"This country is missing the Linux boat," Mr Hegan said.
"Why, when more servers were deployed worldwide last year with the free Linux operating system than with Microsoft operating systems, is less than 2 per cent of New Zealand's installed base using Linux? Has the rest of the world got it so wrong?"
Mr Hegan's assessment of conservatism is backed by IBM New Zealand head Nick Lambert, who says companies have not got past the "toe-dipping" stage with Linux.
IBM is spending $US1 billion to make sure its hardware and software are compatible with Linux, which it sees as a key technology.
"A couple of years out, Intel boxes running Linux could run half the organisations in New Zealand," Mr Lambert said.
Mr Hegan, whose background includes promotion and event organising, started Asterisk two years ago.
Much of its business now comes from installing mail and web servers and from its low-cost Firefly firewall and router software.
Mr Hegan said Linux and other open source technology were more stable and reliable than expensive products from Microsoft and other vendors.
"There's something about the New Zealand character where we pride ourselves on being early adopters and being innovative," he said.
"But the truth is we're an easy sell for the flash overseas products.
"For whatever reason, young people here have bought the idea that having an McSE (Microsoft Certifies Systems Engineer) is a ticket to a job, so there are a lot of them out there and they're pretty good at it."
Microsoft-oriented system administrators are likely to use the Microsoft IIS web server rather than the open source Apache web server used by most servers on the web.
That makes their systems vulnerable to viruses and worms such as Code Red, which exploit holes in IIS.
Mr Hegan said part of the cost to an organisation was in having highly paid computer specialists constantly loading patches or rebuilding systems damaged by viruses.
But "the cost of using proprietary licensed operating systems to run simple servers which could easily be using Linux must be in the tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars."
He said New Zealanders needed a change of attitude.
"I believe responsible corporate and governmental behaviour, when looking at new technologies, is to say, 'Why not use a free product if one is available?"'
There is a way to go, as Mr Hegan discovered when trying to download papers from the Catching the Knowledge Wave website - and found they were available only in Microsoft Word.
"Holding a Knowledge Wave conference and saying that you can't even read the papers without paying Microsoft a licence fee is the kind of thing that makes New Zealand a laughing stock."
Linux got a plug at the conference when keynote speaker Dr John Seely Brown, the chief scientist for Xerox, confessed he had at first ridiculed it.
"I was convinced it was impossible, without master architects, to build something as complicated as the Linux operating system," Dr Brown said.
"Today the Linux operating system probably outperforms every operating system in the world.
"They have found a way to tap the community mind around the world to build this wonderful system."