One of the largest ever EU initiatives promoting open-source software for SMEs, the Digital Business Ecosystem (DBE) could revolutionise how small and medium-sized companies use and develop software. DBE helps businesses to develop applications, and software developers to sell to a global market.
Most small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) currently find it difficult and expensive to develop customised software. Custom development is costly and time-consuming, while using standard packages locks firms into one supplier. SMEs form the backbone of Europe's economy, but the sector has been unable, to date, to reap the full benefits of recent ICT advances.
The partners involved in the DBE project intend to change that and, so far, appear to be succeeding. DBE is an internet-based software environment that facilitates the development and use of business software applications. What is truly revolutionary about the DBE environment is that the software is described both as a programming function and as a semantically rich business process.
The upshot is that business people can define a need and acquire software tailored to their business. Unlike semantic-web services, users need no programming knowledge – it is software development made simple.
DBE is a middleware platform on which software developers and their end-user clients can build and run applications. DBE is unique and leading-edge in several ways; it is a fully decentralised IP-based P2P (peer-to-peer) operating system with no single point of failure, it allows developers to work at the level of business logic, code is reusable and interoperable thanks to a high-level structured and semantically rich modelling language, and it has an integrated development toolkit.
Most importantly, DBE allows users to create ecosystems, either within private networks or across the internet. Users can undertake P2P interaction within a closed system, in a public area or between ecosystems. DBE enables SMEs to create, integrate and provide services (both software and real-world) more efficiently – allowing SMEs to use DBE software to advertise existing product or service offerings, create new services and combine their own services with those of other SMEs to create new offerings.
With improved and extended products and services, SMEs can broaden their market reach and improve their competitive edge. Potential application areas include enterprise-software functions such as customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or business functions in any industrial domain.
"This is a new way of using ICT," says project coordinator Andrea Nicolai of T-6 in Rome. "It's completely distributed – nobody controls it. One SME makes the software, another uses it, and they can use natural language to express both functional and business needs." It is also designed to evolve over time to new and emerging requirements from a variety of markets.
"This is the largest EU open-source software initiative ever launched for SME applications, with over ten million euros of funding, twenty partners and over one hundred researchers across ten member states," notes Nicolai.
While the DBE project ends in January 2007, DBE itself will continue afterwards. In addition to the three start-up regions of Finland, Spain and the UK, the project has attracted interest from other businesses, regions and governments across Europe, including Lazio (where the DBE is part of the “iLazio” innovation strategy for the region), Trento and Piemonte in Italy, Extramadura in Spain, Baden Wuerttemberg and Stuttgart in Germany.
The DBE environment has already been linked to structural-funds based development in the Aragon region of Spain. Innovation ecosystems have become part of the Aragon regional innovation policy, and a pilot has been launched that involves more than 200 SMEs sharing 30 software applications.
And in India, digital ecosystem technologies are being used in the development of agri-business applications. The DBE team hopes therefore to set up further organisations to act as regional catalysts in a number of countries both within and without the EU.
In Brazil, the Ministry of Culture is planning to use the system to link more than 600 multimedia cultural centres within the” Pontos de Cultura” programme. Each centre has its own media lab, and produces music, television and interviews using a broad mix of media.
"By linking these centres across the DBE environment, the ministry intends to create peer-to-peer TV that will enable anyone in the network to mix and match those 'media objects' that are on the network. And because these objects are available under the Creative Commons licence – as are all DBE project results – they can be used for free," says Nicolai.
DBE project researchers also hope to establish a DBE Open Source organisation that will continue to maintain and update the system, and intend to recruit sponsors, investors and partners to help make that happen. "We'd really like to work with people who want to support the open-source software movement, people like Mark Shuttleworth of Ubuntu, a very popular version of Linux. Such investors can appreciate the strengths of DBE and help support the aims of open-source software."