UPDATE I originally wrote this article on 29th November 2009 and it was published in the Trinidad Guardian. This is a snapshot of the article. Due to a relaunch of their website, a lot of their content has since been lost including my article, so here it is.
Huh? You can benefit from Open Source Software? This question usually paints a confusing scenario in the local IT community and brings about many misconceptions. The answer to this question will be approached from two different angles, from a developers point of view and then from a business point of view.
What is Open Source Software (OSS)?
The term “open source software” is usually replaced with “free software” and in a nutshell, it means just that. Typically, one can download OSS freely, modify it, re-distribute it, make improvements and even sell it! Please read here for a more detailed definition of Open Source Software. Of course, there are different types of Open Source (OS) licenses.
Conversely, closed source software is quite the opposite. You pay for closed source software either by purchasing it “out of the box” or by paying for licensed copies of it. The best way to identify the major differences between the two types of software is by giving examples.
Open source software >> Closed source equivalent
Firefox Internet >> Internet Explorer
Linux OS >> Windows OS
Open Office >> Microsoft Office
Gimp >> Photoshop
It is arguable that one can accomplish the same tasks efficiently using the OS version of a software in the majority of cases.
By now, you are probably assuming some of the most typical myths of OSS such as:
- If it's free, it can't be that good right? Nothing free is ever good
- If it's free, the developers do not make money from it.
- If you need support, there is no where to go or no one to blame since no one person/company owns OSS.
- OSS is less secure.
- OSS is hard to use.
These misconceptions are really far from the truth and the following illustrates why.
Misconception #1 – Yes OSS is free to obtain or download but it is not free to develop. Developers have to live too. Even though there are a substantial number of developers contributing to open source projects freely, initially the project started because one organisation out there, found a need that a customized software could fulfill. This organisation hired a team of developers and invested in its development. Pretty soon, another company started using the software and quickly realised there are missing features that can also benefit other companies. They pay to have these features implemented and now the project as a whole has just grown by a few features. Extrapolate this by hundreds of companies and thousands of developers around the world and you will see how quickly a successful open source project can evolve globally.
Misconception #2 – A lot of developers contribute to OSS freely for various personal reasons such as: personal gratification, hobbies, fame etc. However, there are always a core set of developers that are being paid to continually foster the growth of the OS project by adding new features, fixing bugs, responding to security flaws and general maintenance of the entire project.
Misconception #3 – OSS is more community oriented and for each OS project you will certainly find a support forum for support questions or a documentation section. Although this does not seem like a logical choice for many companies, developers of the project can also be paid to provide support. For the more popular OSS, there are companies that specialise in providing support for it. There are, in fact, companies in Trinidad and Tobago that provide open source software support.
Misconception #4 – Imagine a closed source project that involves a team of developers sitting in a room hammering away at code, trying to find security flaws and make improvements. Now, imagine a team of thousands of developers around the world hammering at OS code and fixing security flaws. Naturally, security patches are found and implemented quicker in OSS. The OS project evolves at a much faster rate and is more secure as a result.
Misconception #5 – With every software there is a learning curve. Closed source software usually come with pretty glossy manuals while at minimum, an OSS will come with a text document which is termed “documentation”. Admittedly, a glossy manual is more attractive, than a plain text document. However, once you can overcome this “flaw” of OS projects, the learning curve flattens out. Recently, for the more popular OSS, there are books surfacing, written tutorials and screen casts all available online to help the end user make efficient use of the software. While these misconceptions can be dealt with on a case by case basis, I still have not answered the burning question: How can you as the developer or business benefit from Open Source Software?
Developers: How can you benefit from OSS?
As mentioned earlier, companies pay developers to provide support for the software. There are numerous ways to provide support. You can install/configure, add new features, provide security enhancements, write documentation, provide training for end users or fix bugs. Alternatively, you are allowed to customise your own version of an OSS, brand it, market and sell it. Providing installation, customisations and enhancements is where the real money is. You have to prove to the market that you are a serious vendour support for open source software. Whilst the code is indeed freely available to viewing by the public and the company can extend it themselves in-house, most companies do not have the time to undertake these tasks, mainly because it is not their core business. These companies will instead turn to you, the developer. The open source revenue model is one based on a service revenue stream rather than a licence revenue stream. This harbours competition for vendours providing support services. Although OSS is copyrighted and licensed under special OS licenses, it still allows for free re-distribution in most cases. It is this characteristic which propels the distinctive economic benefits that OS accumulates. In turn, this attracts a number of potential customers (who would have probably never considered the software), and they in turn will need support at some point in the future.
Businesses: How can you benefit from OSS?
In Trinidad and Tobago, OSS has penetrated the market to a certain significant extent, but certainly not to the extent that closed source software has. Why? No one really knows, but if I had to give a calculated guess, I would say a lack of awareness, a cultural attitude towards paying for software and/or obtaining propriety software illegally. For many of the closed source software used in today's business, there is at least one good competitive OS equivalent. Clearly, the initial benefit to any company from OSS, is the money saved. Instead of paying for software (either by buying licensed copies of it or purchasing it off the shelf) and then paying for installation/configuration, why not obtain the free OS equivalent? Firstly, you save on licence costs and you can then instead use that money to invest in the software for missing features or even obtain training for your users of the software. Did I mention that OSS is infinitely customizable? In comparison to propriety software, you are stuck with the feature set offered. This is certainly not the case for OSS and many people do not realise this. From a business' perspective, it is always better to mold a software to fit the business needs rather than mold a business to fit the software needs.
Mr. Shivan Jaikaran is an Internet enthusiast and freelance web developer who appreciates how easy the web makes his life while striving to empower others to do the same.