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Look out Siebel, here comes open source CRM

  • September 6, 2000
  • By Cynthia Flash
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"The source code to Anteil's CRM program is available on its Web site. The program itself is written in the open source scripting language PHP."
When a customer contacts a company - whether by phone, in writing, or through the Internet, one of the biggest challenges the company faces is how to integrate all the information so the sales force has a complete picture of that customer.

The new buzz phrase for customer integration is customer relationship management, or CRM. There are some 300 to 400 proprietary CRM solutions offered today by companies ranging from small niche players like E.piphany Inc. and Xchange Inc. to major vendors like Oracle Corp. and Siebel Systems.

But Anteil, a 12-person startup in Harrisburg, Penn., appears to be the first to offer a comprehensive open source CRM solution. Linux hardware vendor VA Linux Systems Inc., of Sunnyvale, Calif., is a customer and collaborator. The idea, said Anteil chief executive Jim Capp, is to make the CRM solution available to anyone who wants to use it, and then allow the open source community to build upon it. Anteil will sell customization and consulting services to companies seeking help in implementing open source-based CRM.

Anteil has been using open source tools to build proprietary CRM applications for several years, including successful systems for the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance, real estate brokers, and others. In June 2000, Anteil the name comes from a Dutch word meaning share published the source code to its CRM program on its Web site, http://www.anteil.com. The program is itself written in an open source computer language: PHP, the hot new open source scripting language that's gaining the attention of programmers who want to add dynamic content to their Web sites.

The term CRM means different things to different people. In its most general definition, it means changing a company's philosophy to put the customer first. It requires a customer-centric business philosophy and culture to support effective marketing, sales, and customer service. From Anteil and other technology companies' point of view, CRM means providing the technology that enables companies to put the customer first.

Anteil's CRM software is built around a common core to support a variety of applications. There is a sales force automation component that allows the sales force to track quotes, conduct customer follow up, track history, and note various contacts with clients and customers. Another module allows customer service representatives to track calls and capture and log e-mail correspondence.

VA Linux tosses out Windows in favor of open source

VA Linux last year was using a Windows-based CRM system and sought an open source system to match its own company philosophy. Anteil's sales management solution seemed to fit what VA Linux was looking for, according to Capp. "VA Linux convinced us to go totally open source What we needed was a little help with how to do it," he said.

A couple other companies offer open source CRM pieces. Stone Analytics, of San Diego, published an open source market analysis piece, and the Web site OpenSourceCRM.org is devoted to building a complete suite of open source CRM applications.

Steve Westmoreland, chief information officer of VA Linux, said nearly 60 VA Linux salespeople now use the CRM system, which manages customer contacts. The company is also working to bring its technical support employees onto the system. VA Linux is also working to add the order-fulfillment side of its business to the system, so sales and tech support representatives can see what products a customer has actually received.

Anteil and VA Linux tout the open source model as a cheaper approach to a CRM solution. That should be welcome news for lots of companies: today's proprietary solutions can cost $10 million to $20 million for a large retailer, says Bob Chatham, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. While proprietary vendors charge less than $10 million for their software, the system won't work until companies build central databases and then integrate the CRM applications into the company's existing computer systems -- an expensive process.

The open source CRM solution is free. It's then up to companies to customize it themselves or hire someone like Anteil to do that for them. "We've had several hundred companies download the application," said Capp, "and we've been in contact with about a dozen who are in various stages of implementing it."

For its part, VA Linux hopes to sell the computers that run Anteil's CRM system. "Any enterprise level application on Linux is good for us," Westmoreland said. The biggest hurdle, he said, is convincing companies to take a chance on the open source CRM solution. Many don't have their own internal IT staffs and others are used to using proprietary software. Westmoreland said he hopes to find a large group of smaller companies to use the software, rather than just a couple large ones.

Analysts are skeptical

Meanwhile, the issue of an open source CRM system is raising some questions among analysts. Joshua Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications in Berkeley, Calif., questions whether an open source application--especially a CRM application--is appropriate for a large company. "CRM today is frequently considered highly strategic," he said. "Companies implementing it are doing so because they feel CRM can have a significant impact on their bottom line. A company that would go for an open source solution would perhaps be taking what could be seen as an undue risk, particularly if that company's requirements were highly strategic."

On the other hand, Greenbaum notes, a company could implement an open source CRM solution for a non-strategic part of its business. For example, a retailer or telecommunications company could use it in its call center.

But Greenbaum doesn't recommend a call center company adopting an open source CRM solution. He adds that a successful CRM solution must be customized and tightly integrated with a company's back office, human resources, and other departments. He said he doubted that such customization would come from the open source community. "At a certain point it's going to have to cease to be open source to be as functional as the market wants in the end," he said.

Chatham, the Forrester analyst, agrees. "It kind of breaks the open source model because the open source model is one where you take it, make a contribution and put it back. The put it back part, global 2,500 companies aren't willing to comply with. It's going to be difficult for a firm to take this and contribute back to the community."

VA Linux's Westmoreland, however, says the beauty of having an open source CRM solution is that the company owns it--instead of relying on a vendor. "Whenever you make a CRM decision, you bet your career that the company you're signing up with can do the job. [Making that code open source] gives me access to the secret ingredients. My programming staff can make their changes. And if I get my own consultant I can be confident people won't leave with the code they wrote."

Reach freelance writer Cynthia Flash at cynthia@flashmediaservices.com.

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