Are Open Source Applications Your Best Option?

Tuesday Aug 2nd 2016 by Paul Rubens
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Open source or proprietary applications? When choosing enterprise software, you must consider factors like ease of use and support.

When a company like Microsoft embraces open source software, it's tempting to believe that the open source software model is better than the proprietary one and that companies should adopt an "open source first" policy: picking open source applications whenever they are available, and using proprietary software only when there are no open source alternatives.

There's certainly something to be said for such a policy. After all, if it comes down to a choice between a proprietary product and an open source software solution, there's rarely a reason to pick the proprietary solution on the basis that it has killer features that you need or simply more features that you like.

That's because one of the major attractions of open source software is that you're not stuck with the features it comes with. Instead of paying a corporation a license fee for the product it chooses to offer you, you can pay a developer to take the open source code and add exactly the features you need so the result meets your requirements exactly.

That's the theory anyway, but it's important to remember that software choice is not always about features and there are certain applications for which open source software may be the wrong choice.

De Facto Software Standards

In some industries or business fields a certain proprietary application is the accepted de facto standard. More generally, Microsoft's Office suite is the de facto standard for spreadsheets and word processor documents.

When there's a de facto standard and you choose an open source alternative, there's a risk that the alternative is not 100 percent compatible. For example, in the case of an open source productivity suite, you may not be able to display all Word or Excel files correctly and documents and spreadsheets you create and share with customers or clients may display in an unexpected way when opened on their computers in Office. That could cause expensive mistakes or simply annoy your customers and clients to the extent that they don't want to do business with you.

When certain software is the de facto standard - or even when two or three proprietary solutions account for the vast majority of the market - there is also the issue of staff training. Most staff that you recruit will be proficient in the market-leading applications in their field and may have trained on them in college. If an open source alternative has relatively small market share, you could be faced with increased training costs or even difficulty recruiting staff willing to work on it.

Open Source and Ease of Use

Related to this is the issue of ease of use. It's a topic that open source enthusiasts are loathe to talk about, but one of open source software's dirty secrets is that some - not all - is not as user friendly as the proprietary alternatives. The reason for this simply comes down to economics. Proprietary software companies operate in a different way to most open source projects, and as a result they may have far more money to spend on things like user interface design.

(They also tend to have money to spend on activities like sales and marketing, which is why  "open source companies won't take you out to play golf," as Tony Wasserman, a professor of software management practice at Carnegie Mellon University, puts it.)

"A lot of open source applications are ugly," concedes Greg Soper, managing director of SalesAgility, an open source consultancy and maintainer of the SuiteCRM open source CRM system. "But as they mature they will improve," he adds. "We had a user interface thrown together by techies, but as we have won contracts we have invested revenue into the user interface to make it better."

The result of this difference in financial models is that an open source software solution may not be the one that staff wants to use or will be able to use as productively as a proprietary solution with a better thought out interface.

Application Sustenance: Support, Warranties and Indemnities

In some fields there are many high quality open source business applications. These include open source enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, human resource management, ecommerce, content management, business intelligence and Big Data analysis applications.

"With proprietary software you can only implement it to the extent that your budget allows, so it may not be worth licensing an application for something like CRM to members of staff who may only use it two or three times per week," says Soper.  But with an open source solution you may be able to extend the application to everyone who could conceivably benefit from it, he adds.

In these fields there are also plenty of organizations that provide commercial support at the level that you are likely to need it. But for less mainstream open source applications that won't always be the case, and that can be an open source deal breaker for software your business relies on.

Likewise you may need a warranty or indemnity, and if the sponsors of the open source projects you're interested in can't provide them and you can't find a third party who will offer them, an open source solution may not work for you.

Stability

If you're evaluating a proprietary software product, one of the considerations you should take into account is the financial stability of the company; how reliant is it on its two or three biggest customers, and ultimately how likely is it that the company will stay in business for the foreseeable future. When you evaluate open source software, you may need to evaluate a commercial organization that sponsors and maintains the project in a similar way; one difference is that even if the sponsoring organization goes out of business that doesn't mean the end of the project.

Because the source code is freely available, anyone else can take the code and run with it. That means that it may be more relevant to evaluate the strength of the community that surrounds a project. If it is large and vibrant, the risk of the project dying is relatively small - probably smaller than the risk that any given proprietary software company goes out of business.

Specialized Applications

For very specialist software applications such as encryption, some open source solutions might too be risky. Even though open source encryption software is preferable to proprietary encryption solutions - because it's only if the code is open that it can be scrutinized for defects or back doors -the fact is that it is such a specialist field that if the project's sponsor or leader disappears it may be well-nigh impossible to find anyone with sufficient skills and time to continue the project.

Four Questions to Ask When Considering Open Source

Before evaluating an open source application, it may be useful to ask the following questions:

  • If I pick this open source application, am I choosing not to use the de-facto standard application? If you choose not to use the de facto standard - either for your specific industry or a widely used standard like Microsoft Office - you risk compatibility problems.
  • Is this open source alternative usable enough to enable high staff productivity? Some open source software just looks strange and amateurish compared to proprietary alternatives. Of course anyone can improve the user interface of open source offerings, but in practice this rarely happens. This is less of a problem with mainstream open source enterprise applications.
  • Are suitable support, warranties and indemnities available from any source? Again, this tends not to be a problem with enterprise applications such as ERP, CRM and HRM.
  • Is the project suitably secure? With proprietary software all the eggs are on one basket, but the good news with open source software is that the community or even your own organization could step in if the project's leader disappears.
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