Open Source: What It's Not

Flickr: Introducing OliveSpeaking to an old friend and past colleague sometime ago I was struck by how he saw the weird and wacky world of "open source". He talked about it as more than a way of creating, distributing and supporting software, in essence he saw it as a (new) way of operating if you're a software vendor that promises $0 cost software for all. He also saw this as a lie!

As an example he related a story of how he had had discussions with vendors about a (traditional - eek) Intranet CMS for a client. He then delivered the options to the people with the money (management) and it went something like this:

Mate: Ok, so the choice is ProprietarySW at $1,000 and OpenSourceSW at $0.

Management: Wow, it's OpenSourceSW, surely.

Mate: Hmm, but OpenSourceSW is limited and only meets about 50% of what we know we want right now whilst ProprietarySW probably meets 95%.

Mgt: Ah. So what do we do?

Mate: Well, OpenSourceSW vendor says it's all sweet because "we" can get modules to add-on or even dive right into the code and write the other 50% for us at a cost of $950. As they say, "that's the beauty of open source"

Mgt: Oh well, that's a small saving (!) of $50.

Mate: Hmm, but then we'll be relying on OpenSourceSW vendor to maintain our version of the OpenSourceSW for ever ... and I don't see the difference between that and ProprietarySW, it's a "lock-in" of one type or another. And, to be honest, I know the ProprietarySW and it's support reseller/development network so much more.

...

You see the problem - open source = free/$0 in the minds of management (the lie) and in my mates it is the same cost and therefore why bother changing, what is the advantage of doing it?

Open source is NOT defined by cost; it is NOT $0.
There are distributions of Linux (an open source operating system) that will cost you money.

What open source IS free of is a lot (not all) limitations.
You can, if you want and have the skills, amend the source code yourself - you are free to do so.
You can, if you want, pass on your amendments to others - you are free to do so.


Fundamentally open source software is therefore is a development "environment" within which the raw materials, the lines of code, are open to all and to which you are free to amend (if you have the skills) and pass on. This is, of course, fundamentally different to proprietary software where the raw materials are kept under lock and key and you are allowed to use the software for set and agreed reasons.

The question is, why would you pay for open source generated software - well, if the code is open then there can be no lock-in. If Vendor1 asks for $1,000 for use of the software you can, if you have the skills, merely get the code yourself and away you go. Mostly you'd turn to Vendors2 -99 and use one them. Having the code as "free to use" means it's tough, but not impossible, to only charge for code.

How does this relate my mate?
I think the key term I've used a lot is "if you have the skills" - if you have a team of developers available (either in-house or within the community) then it's much easier to make the transition. But where do you find this community - if my mate is used to talking with ProprietarySW vendor and knows nothing of the open source community on his own doorstep then it can be a very daunting path to step on to. - "Who are these people, are they just one-shed-Joes, is there an eco-system I can call upon ... Christ this all sounds very weird and scary I think I'll stay where I am."

And there's the rub, "open source" IS a different set of people than the proprietary bunch.
They meet in different places. They have their own conferences. They interact with different people. It can sometimes be a clique.

What's a mate to do - what would you say to him?


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Comments

  1. Considering the vendor ecosystem for proprietary can be just as confusing if you're not going through the parent company (MS, IBM etc), people like your mate shouldn't be too afraid to look into it. There are enough online communities now that can give you a hint of who to talk to (and maybe who to avoid). There's also a degree of crossover starting to happen, where vendors will be equally happy to deploy you a SharePoint or a Drupal.

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  2. "Better the devil you know ..." is probably what I should've called this title :-)

    The crossover point you make is a good one and I wholeheartedly welcome. Makes for an interesting time with those s/w manufactureres that demand/cajole IT service vendors/re-sellers into choosing only one :-)

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  3. First thing I'd say is "How much support have you ever had directly from Microsoft?" or any of the other proprietary vendors? You get support from the reseller. If you hire an integrator to implement an OSS solution, that's where you're going to go for your support, just as you would for closed source software. The difference is that you have other choices available if you have a problem with the support you're getting.

    What your mate is really saying is "I'm too lazy to keep up with what's available, so I'll go on doing what I've always done, whther it's the best thing for my company/organisation or not. After all, no-one ever got fired for buying [insert_vendor_here]."

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  4. "and I don't see the difference between that and ProprietarySW, it's a "lock-in" of one type or another"

    That's the point of open source - by having the source available, you are not locked in. Any IT manager who can't understand that should hand in his/her propellor beanie immediately.

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