Open Source vs Proprietary Debate

22:49 Wednesday May 8, 2013

Hopefully this article will help you through
a minefield full of misinformation.

We have had a long-running debate in the office, and we see this reflected online, as to which is better: open source or proprietary software. Here are some conclusions we have come to.

Firstly, we see that this debate is largely driven by those who are financially attached to the outcome. That is, the companies selling proprietary software debate that open source is the wrong choice where as those selling open source based solutions swear the opposite is true. So the first thing to consider when evaluating the argument being offered is to check the person's or companies' allegiances (or product/service offerings).

Next we have to examine some of the superlatives used: 'all', 'every', etc. Not 'every' example of either open source or proprietary software is either: good or bad; easy-to-use or hard-to-use; well supported or poorly supported. There are a range of all types - from both arenas. So ignore superlatives and focus on features and benefits as they apply to your situation.

A close friend of mine once observed that the value of the advice he was given depended on the person giving the advice. Some were very much like him and so the advice could be trusted. Where as, some of the advice came from people with a very different outlook on life and thus that advice should be taken with a grain of salt. This is also true for this debate. For example, if you are a savvy software developer and getting advice from someone of the same caliber and understanding, you can reasonably trust what they say will apply to you. However, if you are 'Joe Public' and being told to buy an open source solution by an open source developer, be careful. What they assume is easy for everyone, may be a confusing and complicated nightmare for you.

The 'who provides the best support' part of the debate is also somewhat misleading. Just because a system has a large online community with extensive help forums does not mean that the support provided by those communities is appropriate for everyone.

The quality of the support provided, as per advice, is dependent on the person giving it and the person requiring it. Unfortunately, the predominant culture of the internet is one that shuns and ridicules beginners. People new to a topic are termed 'Noobs' or 'Newbys'. Therefore, when these Noobs enter a forum, they are 'fair game' and can be given misleading or even dangerous advice. One famous example (WARNING: contains bad language - How to Triforce) is where a young boy was convinced to completely ruin his father's work computer by a forum of computer experts.

Many people are convinced that open source software is well supported by a myriad of friendly experts worldwide through forums and other online 'community' initiatives. However, this is not quite what it seems. It takes a firm hand and a large dollop of control to ensure a forum remains 'clean' and the advice given helpful - especially when there is a possibility that people completely new to using a computer could be visiting it. This is the job of forum 'moderators'. Some argue that proprietary software companies do this better than open source communities as the company has a vested interest in keeping their precious clients happy.

The 'transportability' of a solution - i.e. from one provider to another - has been given as a primary driver for people choosing open source solutions. We have even heard people refer to their open source solution as 'their' software - implying that they own it and can do what they like with it. While it is true that having complete access to the code base gives one a far greater level of control over a system, this must be qualified.

Firstly, as has been highlight recently with the attacks against WordPress, 'owning' the software does not mean you will have a useful or reliable solution for your business. All software requires regular updates and bug fixes. In fact, owning a piece of software (not buying a copy, but actually owing the source code - which in effect is what many claim they have with open source software) is like adopting a baby: it requires constant feeding or it will die. This means a constant ongoing investment in the code base, even if that is simply downloading and installing the latest updates from the community.

However, if one 'walks away' from the company or contractor that helped them to set up the solution, or decides to 'go it alone', they can be left 'high-and-dry' in an unfriendly world (see above point on support communities) without the required expertise or time commitment required to adequately support themselves. This leaves their business vulnerable to attack and, depending on the importance of the software to their business, can put their business in real jeopardy.

Next, with 'owning' the code base, one must consider the cost of support. For most proprietary solutions that service 'Joe Public', support costs are pitched at SMEs. That is, it is either built-in to the set-up or ongoing costs or sufficiently cheap enough for almost any business to be able to afford. However, with open source solutions, expert support can become very costly.

While it is true that a wider range of 'experts' have access to open source, it also means that you could be exposing your business to incompetent and unprofessional operators in order to get affordable support. After all, what is stopping someone with low-to-no skills representing themselves as a expert for any given solution. How do you tell if they are competent? Do you put them through a software engineer employment test? Would you even know what questions to ask them? And even if they understand software, or this piece of software, do they know enough about business to be still in business after a few months/years or to help you with choosing and configuring the right solution for your business? Unless you plan on going out of business after a few months, you want to make sure your support company is still going to be there when you need them in the years to come.

I can hear you say, "longevity of the business is the same problem with proprietary software - at least with open source solutions you 'own' the code so it is not so critical if the original supplier goes out-of-business. You can always find someone else to service you." Good point. We agree that many people who get custom built solutions for their business are leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to the fortunes, or mis-fortunes, of the contractor who built it for them. In fact, we have seen people come to us and our friends with such solutions and been told that it is cheaper to re-build the solution than to try and fix it. This of course is a very expensive, and for some, debilitating problem.

However, the issue here is 'custom built' solutions, not proprietary software. After all, if you are commissioning a custom built solution, you should arguably own the code anyway - which puts it in the same status as open source - i.e. you 'own' it. We suggest that if you cannot afford to maintain and build upon a solution that you commissioned, you shouldn't be commissioning it in the first place. This includes, to some extent, having the right expertise in-house - not just relying solely on contractors.

Which leads us back to what your own company's' capabilities should be when opting to use open source software. Because, to some extent, this is the position you will find yourself in if your 'expert' leaves you or goes out of business (see above comments about support). In other words, we advocate that open source is wonderful and very valuable to people and companies capable of supporting themselves. But can leave SMEs with little to no technical expertise vulnerable.

The lure of a 'free' solution attracts the very people that should never use open source software to get involved with it (i.e. small companies with little-to-no budget and little-to-no understanding).  Their 'free' solution ends up costing them much more than an equivalent proprietary solution does in time as well as ongoing support and set-up costs. The level of expertise they require is expensive in the open source community - more so than with proprietary solutions. And if they opt for a cheap set-up or support offering... well as the old saying goes 'if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys'.

So what about proprietary solution companies potentially going out-of-business? The paradox is that usually if a company can afford to build a high-quality software solution, they are more than likely to not go out-of-business any time soon. It is the ones who cannot afford the cost, or do not have the required expertise, for building one of these solutions and must instead rely on using open source that are more likely to collapse without warning. This does not mean you should not check out how long a company has been in business for before choosing your supplier. A good rule of thumb is that if a company has been around for more than 10 years, there is a good chance that they will last long term - and if you are a start-up, they will more than likely last longer than you will.

A large part of the debate we have had here also pertains to which type of software is ultimately going to be more 'user-friendly': open source or proprietary. The debate goes something like this:

All software, open source or proprietary, is built by technicians. The problem is technicians know what they like and tend to build something that suits them. A proprietary software company is driven by the need to build a user friendly system. That is, the primary focus is on the end user - who for 'Joe Public' systems such as Website Content Management Systems (WCMS) is not a technician. This means, while there may be battles internally within a company to get the end result user friendly, the user can get a much more intuitive system to use. That is, the technicians are reigned in and managed by the company owners. Open source software does not have this constraint. In fact, once it is released, technicians almost exclusively drive the development process. Therefore, proprietary systems are more likely to be more user-friendly.

It is a good argument, but we think it is way to general. We feel that a solution should be judged on its own merits in a fair 'apple-for-apples' comparison. Some open source solutions could be more useable than some proprietary solutions - and visa versa. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to this.

The very term 'intuitive' is debatable. That is, what may be intuative for one person may be hard to learn for another. It largely depends on what someone has become used to or familiar with.

In an interview with Alan Kay, one of the pioneers behind the Mac/Windows windowing environment designed at Xerox’s fabled PARC labs, Kay commented that "There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles, etc. and to a lesser extent automobiles)."

This begs the question, 'should we always seek the 'easiest-to-learn' solution?" This usually means we seek out that which we are already familiar with. Alternatively, should we seek out a solution that will give us the best 'pay-off' for our time investment in learning it?

When choosing a solution, it may be better to focus on finding one that will provide the best long term solution for your business. One that ensures you do not 'hit a brick wall' in the future when both your understanding and business requirements grow.

Many solutions promise a lot and may seem perfect for your current requirements. However, a favorite saying for those in the area of education is "we don't know what we don't know". This means we will not often be able to predict what our future needs will be as we simply do not know enough in our current situation to know what the future may hold for us. The right expert advice is required to help us 'see the future' at this point. We need to find someone who has already succeeded in achieving what we are setting out to do. Someone with sufficient experience to be able to help us to navigate the murky and often turbulent waters ahead. Someone who has already passed through them and knows the safest way through to the other side.

These business experts are not people who are just starting out and needing to rely on open source solutions just to give you something tangible. They are more likely to not just be software technicians as well. They are likely to be the founders of companies who have been through the pain of developing a solution and growing it beyond the borders of their own country. While some original developers of open source solutions fit this bill, you are more likely to find someone fitting this description among those promoting a proprietary solution. However, again, there is no hard and fast rule to this.

In conclusion then, have we answered the question of which type of system is the best for your business? Maybe not, but we hope we have given you some points to consider when making your choice. We believe that each type of software, proprietary or open source, has its merits. However, the suitability of one over the other is totally dependent on the who is going to be using it and for what situation it is required for.

We personally believe on the balance of things that it is wrong for 'Joe Public' or SMEs to be sold into an open source solution by those with little to no expertise in building software themselves. This can be both misleading and dangerous. Price is never a good determining factor one way or the other - i.e. cheap solutions may be better than high priced options and visa versa. Check out all factors, but first and foremost check out who it is who is selling you the solution.


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