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Aug 03

Open source can mean business!

So far there is (and I suspect always will be) a tussle between open source “software” and proprietary. The common themes are

  • Which is better?
  • What are the advantages / disadvantages of X?
  • Which one costs more?
  • Which should I use? Why?
  • Which should I not use? Why not?
  • etc

The big question I get a lot is “Why should I care?”

Good questions all of them but my favourite is most definitely the last one.

Recently I have had some good discussions whilst reading some great opinions. Unfortunately it often does come down to all this just being a matter of opinion, which most of the time is made of more than just facts but also ideologies, ethics (or lack of) plus a myriad of other things that people are unable to let go of or often unaware they are carrying.

I think the reason why some businesses and people should care (and conversely some shouldn’t) will depend wholly on whether you need software, what it is that you need the software to do, any other expectations (eg. support, updates etc) and lastly how much you want to spend.

Desktop / General Software

A lot of people just need the basics. Take my wife for example – she needs software that will do mostly basic stuff

  • Check email
  • Look at websites
  • Write documents (word style documents, spreadsheets, sometimes edit a powerpoint presentation)
  • Watch movies / video’s
  • Store and listen to music
  • Play “Sudoku”

That’s basically it. Not a lot of power required there and honestly, her iPad does most of what she needs. In fact the laptop is now becoming a secondary device used only to type up assignments and record her hours worked with clients.

The reason she doesn’t care is because I kind of look after this aspect for her but if she did I know she would be using proprietary (or the basic pre-installed) software pretty much everywhere. So what does she think?

Firstly – she doesn’t care about her email software (Mozilla Thunderbird) mainly because it works fine & is similar enough to Outlook from when she worked in the corporate world that she knows how to use it. She does care a lot about her document processing – so much so that she went & bought Microsoft Office (or should I say purchased a key online).

She does care about costs to a degree – probably more than she cares about the costs of clothes or shoes (after all they last & look good… hope she doesn’t read this). What she really cares about though is how it looks and feels, whether it “just works” and who else is able to access it (eg. open document format “odt” is not that great with some other office software). If she knew that all the different pieces of software were able to play nicely with each other then she would feel far better about using the software I sometimes push on her to “try it out”.

When it comes to business there are a number of interoperability issues within & external to the business (ie. clients and other internal business units) that must be ensured will have a smooth interaction with each other. This is important and a primary consideration, along with who to blame when it doesn’t work.

Therefore I think that rather than software being open-source or proprietary it has always seemed to me to be a commitment that companies should produce “standards compliant” software which some will maintain that they do. This may be debate-able, but not within the scope of this post.

What I feel the largest area of concern is that different software providers are attempting to influence & apply their own standards into an industry or a resource.

Open-Source Websites

When it comes to websites open-source is making it easy and cheap for a business to get online. A business can get a wordpress website set up & running in a few minutes assuming that they don’t have any large technical requirements. Even with larger businesses and detailed requirements these sites can be set-up rather quickly & look very good.

So why are there businesses with proprietary systems? Basically they feel that they are able to provide a service to a customer base; just the same as all other businesses! Is their product better or worse depends on the actual product.

Consider :

  • Vendor lock-in
  • dependant on vendors for updates
  • dependant on vendors for customisation
  • costing (TCO)
  • peer-reviewed security
  • can it be moved to another host?
  • ownership of code??
  • compensation & regulation. You may not have anyone to pursue and seek remedy and/or compensation from. Try suing any proprietary system owner & I think you will find that their contract basically waives the right to do so in almost all cases. I have never heard of this being done successfully. Do you have any evidence that these providers offer a guarantee ?

Before anyone claims my obvious bias, I have worked with both types of website software and am always impressed at the speed and response from open-source developers. When I have required changes or modification to proprietary systems the response of the vendor is usually one of two

  • the software can’t do that but here is how WE want you to do something which we have decided is close enough

or

  • we will address that at a future time ie. the next release/ update/ patch/ version

This may not always be the case but is my experience until you are paying $10’s of thousands. When you hand over six-figures then I feel any business has the right to get exactly what they want, as I am sure we all agree.

Conclusion

I will finish this post with a quote from my father…
Use the right tool for the job
The hard part is trying to figure out what the job really is!

Permanent link to this article: http://marcus.herstik.com/2011/open-source-can-mean-business/