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Room for Interpretation

November 1, 2006
by Greg Goth
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Significant subtleties pose stumbling blocks for Eclipse's Open Healthcare Framework.

IBM, Armonk, N.Y., recently announced it was donating client-side components of its health information exchange software to the open source Open Healthcare Framework (OHF) project by the Eclipse Foundation, Ottawa, Ont.

The technology will be demonstrated for attendees of the IHE Connectathon in January, and the HIMSS Interoperability Showcase in February. If the OHF work gains popularity as quickly as the rest of the Eclipse Foundation's integrated development environment (IDE) and rich client platform (RCP), the OHF team might find itself holding a tiger by the tail.

However, the healthcare industry's laggard innovative landscape, plus what one consultant says are some inherent limitations to the OHF work, might prove to be a greater drag on OHF technology pick-up than other areas of the Eclipse juggernaut.

While nearly every major vendor in the enterprise software industry has endorsed and invested in the Eclipse IDE (except Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems and Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft), Shahid Shah, CEO of Netspective, an enterprise architecture consulting firm based in Langham, Md., says the entrenched players in healthcare don't have any compelling reason to do so with OHF.

Those incumbents not only control their end-user environment, Shah says, but they also charge third-party developers for using their APIs (application programming interfaces). So, much of the appeal of the Eclipse IDE, the ability to supply APIs as Eclipse plug-ins, is not relevant for the current healthcare software market, and that might inhibit interest in the OHF.Shahid shah

However, the OHF technology is based not on the Eclipse IDE, which originated as a generic platform for Java development, but on the even quicker-growing RCP (which is a subset of the larger Eclipse Platform).

The RCP allows developers to build rich-client applications across disparate operating systems, and according to a recent survey conducted by Evans Data, Santa Cruz, Calif., 22 percent of 380 developers reported working with the Eclipse RCP — a growth rate of 130 percent over 2005. The Eclipse IDE, coincidentally, claimed 65 percent of the Java developers' market in a December 2005 survey by BZ Research, Huntington, N.Y., roughly doubling in a two-year span.

Such explosive growth, says Evans Data President John Andrews, is something IT executives in any industry cannot afford to ignore.

"Two years ago, the biggest factors in open source technology were cost and a groundswell of developers' interest," Andrews says. "Now, developers are still the most influential factor, but upper management is the second most influential factor."

Shah says the most likely early adopters of the OHF technology might be start-up open source health records vendors. IBM researcher Eishay Smith, one of the committers on the OHF project, says the company is hearing from the vendor market that has been downloading the OHF specifications.

"If you download the PDF files, they are very technical, drilling down to SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) messages and APIs and, actually, several ISVs (independent software vendors) are using them," Smith says. "One open source ISV just came to us and said, 'We looked at your Wiki, saw the documents and we implemented that.' They just used OHF without us helping them. That was pretty cool. If that happens, then the documentation is on its way."

Shah says the real battle OHF backers might be preparing for is not one between open source and established proprietary medical records vendors. Instead, IBM might be aligning its OHF effort to battle Microsoft, which officially entered the healthcare market when it purchased Azyxxi, Washington, D.C., in late July.

"The primary reason they're doing this, and there's no rocket science behind it, is they are pushing it to bring services," Shah says. "They're only open sourcing those things they didn't control to remove leverage from those who did have control, and then bringing services right behind," he says.

Author Information:

Greg Goth is a contributing writer based in Oakville, Conn.