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Open Source vs. proprietary software

When deciding what software to use for a project, how do you decide on open source vs. proprietary software? For example, in prior post on social networking software, there are some free options (assuming you have a developers on hand), and some expensive options. Here’s a summary of the typical pros and cons for Open Source.

The arguments for open source are:

  • Lower cost: Since development is done by a community of volunteers (many of whom are paid by other organizations), your costs don’t need to cover a company’s development expenses. That said, this is a minor savings because in mid-sized software company, the vast majority of expenses are customer support and marketing.
  • Customization: Systems like BuddyPress and Drupal are designed for developers to adapt and extend. Whereas, you usually can not make non-cosmetic changes to a proprietary system.
  • Nimble: Open source projects adopt new trends faster than proprietary systems. For example, support for posting to Twitter or logging in using an existing Twitter username was added faster to the open source packages than to commercial ones.
  • Openness: Open Source systems are usually designed with integration in mind; whereas commercial systems have business motivations to lock organizations into a closed system.
  • Fast bug and security fixes: BuddyPress and Drupal have many people combing their source code, and rapidly fix problems as they are discovered. (See security updates from WordPressBuddyPress and Drupal)

The arguments against open source are:

  • Questionable quality: This is an invalid argument. All software, proprietary or Open Source, runs the gamut from exceptional to poor. In the case of BuddyPress and Drupal, both have large teams of developers who report bugs, and people who work on the source code, quickly improving it. This crowd-sourcing approach yields more secure code than any company can accomplish in-house. Even major companies like Apple, Microsoft and Oracle routinely fix bugs discovered by outsiders. Open source projects just tend to be more open than proprietary systems about talking about their bugs.
  • No responsibility: The sticking point for Open Source is that it’s not a company, and there’s rarely any direct customer service. Open Source is a process and philosophy which produces software, but it is not a contract. No customer support rep at BuddyPress or Drupal is waiting to answer calls. However, they have a ton of documentation and online forums. You can hire a consultancy to be accountable to you, or a company like Acquia (see below) who provide an SLA and full support.
  • Not aligned with corporate needs: Open Source software often starts small, and while they may be technically robust (scalable), they might not be designed with the needs of corporate users. In the case of social networking software, the Open Source platforms don’t have all the moderation/censorship, monitoring, and other kinds of features that some commercial platforms do.

The argument against is is typified by Kristi Grigsby, Sr. Director of Marketing at INgage Networks, who says her company’s system has better security, privacy, scalability and support than comparable Open Source projects. Ms. Grigsby says, “Open Source platforms can be terrific tools for DIY projects. But our customers have too much at stake to risk their business with so many potential issues/threats.”

This is echoed by her colleague, Kathy Saenz, INgage Networks’s corporate communications manager. Ms. Saenz says, “Our 11+ years of experience working with highly sensitive customers within federal government and the financial services industry has taught us that. A company like American Express would rarely, if ever, trust their business to an open source platform – I doubt they could pass their stringent security and privacy requirements, scale to the degree needed, and provide the support we provide (from account managers to tech implementation to customer support). Not to mention be exposed to potential network outages or security risks — ‘issues/threats’ that are common weaknesses of open source — and we know several industry analysts who would support this.”

Many newspapers and museums are based on Drupal. Also, the WhiteHouse runs Drupal.


For additional, thoughtful discussion, see an article by Thomas J. Trappler, “Is There Such a Thing as Free Software? The Pros and Cons of Open-Source Software” in the EDUCAUSE Quarterly. Also, here’s a nice table summarizing generic, philosophical arguments.

Note: A shorter version of this article was originally part of the post, Software options for niche social networks.

Comments

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  • Community contributon and involve to an open source project are major issues. For example we see great contribution for WordPress from eco system, and also it is easy to find paid support for that for some tricks or cosmetic changes. But core system is still free.

  • Snowbird

    However it is said that open source things probably may cost us more than paid systems in overall. This is actually Microsoft response to open source.

  • Well written piece of information.

    You mentioned about "arguments against open source". Questions raised on such topic is useless as I experienced. All open source softwares have own communities, forum and professional expert’s support. Anybody can ask question and can get support easily. Even many professionals are spreading knowledge about the softwares through personal blogs and websites that are very popular too. Of course they may have limits but you can vaporise this limits in few minutes by hiring an experienced open source professionals who are ready to help everybody with or without money.

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