In my last article I wrote about how open source (OSS) can help your business. I spoke about the flexibility it can provide and how it can help your business be more competitive.
While open source software offers many advantages, it does have some disadvantages. In this article I will look at the arguments put against OSS. The intent is to not dissuade you from using OSS, but rather to inform you of the risks.
1. It’s sometimes not easy to implement
Usually, OSS is characteristically uneasy to implement. You find that mostly techies are the ones who would take the time to figure out how to install and implement an open source application. While the user interface may be easy to use, the back-end management is a pain.
Some have attributed this to the conflict of interest with OSS creators. These creators offer paid services that cater to the installation and support for the application, so it’s not in their best interest to make the installation easy.
Fortunately, there is often a large community to offer support, if you are willing to comb through forums and wait for answers to your questions. Or you can give in and pay for the installation and support services.
2. It’s not always the highest quality software
There are indeed some high quality OSS around, for example, Firefox, Open Office and PostgreSQL; however, these are the exception, not the rule. A vast majority of the OSS is poorly built, incomplete, dormant or poorly supported. This is caused my multiple issues such as a disorganised developer community, lack of incentives, or poor skills.
This may not be a problem if you plan to develop the software for your own use, and you have much of the capability in-house or contracted. But if you don’t then many OSS may not be worth the hassle.
3. A high skill set is required for modification
While a certain set of skills is required to install some OSS in the first place, there is another whole set required to make modifications, if that is what you plan to do. Programmers and applications developers, database designers and User Interface/User Experience (UI/UX) developers are the types of people required to produce really world-class applications, even if it’s just internally. You may need to have such a team in-house or contract it out, but you’re looking at a large human resources pool.
Now this is to produce world-class applications; if you want to have mediocre software, then you will be able to get away with much less.
4. OSS licensing is sometimes complicated
Is the OSS licensed as GPL, MPL, EPL, Apache, BSD…? You get the idea. There are lots of open source licenses out there, and this list is just the tip of the iceberg.
Each OSS license has its own nuances and requirements. One may require that all modified software be released as source code, another many may not, while another may not allow any derivative code at all.
Let’s not forget attacks on OSS by other commercial software makers about licensing and patent issues, such as Microsoft and WordPress. This adds another layer of risk with any OSS and open source project.
As a precaution, you may want to have a legal person review any licenses if you intend to modify the code, especially if you want to monetise those modifications later on.
5. The Open-Source business model is not always conducive to a sustainable business operation
OSS is loved by many; however, much fewer love it enough to pay for it. It takes a lot of commitment for developers to stay with a project on a pseudo-voluntary basis. Much OSS with a lot of promise, and a fairly large community, has fallen by the wayside. Others, have strong corporate backing, but even that doesn’t mean that it’ll survive (does anyone remember Corel Linux? It was one of the better distros at the time). Even the future of well known software is unknown, for example, MySQL might not have a future since Oracle acquired Sun, the owners of MySQL.
If you want to implement OSS in business critical applications, then you better ensure that you have a way to keep the software maintained if the creators ever go silent.
Then, is it a good idea to use OSS?
I’m no proponent of the open source movement, who tends to treat open source as a religion. I see both the pros and cons of closed source and open source alike. However, even considering the many drawbacks of OSS, open source still has a big future ahead of it.
Different business models have evolved that have allowed some organisations to create a sustainable business creating and using open source, such as Red Hat Linux, Rapid 7 Metasploit and Nexpose and SugarCRM. These businesses have been very successful and profitable.
I’ve always said that businesses need to move from being consumers of IT to being innovators of IT. Open source allows business to develop some of those skills necessary without reinventing the wheel.
It’s time to step forward and start creating new technology.