“Is Open Source Software right for my small business?”
If you are asking the question, the answer is yes!
In fact, you are using it right now – this web server runs Linux (operating system), Apache (web server), and WordPress (blogging framework). All of these programs are Open Source. For something closer to your small business, if you have a web host, and you don’t know what software they are running, it is 99% Linux and Apache (you have to pay “extra” for a Windows host). If they deal with your email, and you did not pay “extra” for Exchange, then that server is running open source software. Your ISP is running open source software, and if you have a Linksys router, you are running open source software.
The question really is, “Should I use more Open Source software than I do now?” To answer this question, you need to understand what “Open Source” is, and more importantly, what Open Source is not.
Isn’t Open Source just Free Software?
No!… if by “free” you mean “costs nothing”. Open Source advocates like to distinguish between “free as in speech” and “free as in beer”, but at this point, the small business owner does not care. At this point, you mean price. (Freedom with software is important, but I will talk about it later.)
First, some “Open Source” software costs money out of the box… usually coupled with hardware. Your Linksys router is a good example of this, and the endian firewall appliance is another. These companies release the source code for their product, knowing that the value added through the appliance is sufficient for you to purchase it.
Secondly, you need to consider all of the costs associated with a particular piece of software, not just the “shrink-wrap price”. Microsoft did a large marketing campaign a few years ago about “total cost of ownership”, claiming Windows cost less to own and operate than Linux when you added in the “hidden” costs of installation and support. For large business and data centers, Microsoft’s claims are a load of… garbage. At scales beyond twenty servers, Linux becomes much cheaper since Microsoft’s per unit costs stay about the same as you add units, while Linux per unit costs shrink to the cost of hardware alone. That’s why Google, and your ISP, use Linux. However, at smaller scales such as your small business, this becomes a serious factor to consider, not just for Linux, but for all Open Source software.
Isn’t Open Source just a Hobby for Uber-Geeks?
No. Some Open Source software starts that way, a geek wants to solve a particular problem and does so, and then puts the solution on his or her website for everyone to use. A good example of this kind of software is the software on my personal website, where I have created scripts and add-ons that solve a particular problem I have, and then shared the results. Other Open Source software starts as a commercial enterprise, and the vendor builds a business model around offering support and other services for the software. MySql, the most widely used relational database system, is an example of this type of software. Most of the software you, as a small business owner are concerned with, is a hybrid of both – a “grand commercial design” that has been “filled out” by individual users adding certain features. OpenOffice.org is an example of this sort. Of course, there’s also Linux, which is all of the above. It started as a “geeky project”, but quickly expanded into several “commercial flavors” that are then extended by non-commercial developers and so forth and so forth.
The point is that many pieces of Open Source software are meant for end-users that have varying degrees of technical skills, and developed (and supported) with varying degrees of profit motive.
Isn’t Open Source just Linux?
No. Linux is only one example of Open Source software, but their are Open Source office suites (OpenOffice.org), Open Source image editors (GIMP), Open Source email clients (Thunderbird), Open Source web browsers (Firefox), etc.
In fact, there is very good Open Source software that only runs on Windows (which I have ranted about here and here).
Then, What is Open Source Software?
It depends who you ask, but ultimately it is a software license, stating, among other things:
- you have access to the non-obscured, original set of human readable instructions that create the software
- you may run the program for any purpose
- you may modify the program as you wish
- you may share your modifications, and the original, if you choose to, with anyone for any purpose, under the same license
For small businesses that aren’t in the development business, Open Source is essentially a feature, but an important one. It means, among other things,
- You do not need to purchase the software for every computer you use it one
- You do not need to maintain records for every computer you use to ensure you comply with the license
- You can customize (or pay someone else to customize) the software to fit your particular need, if the software doesn’t quite fit.
- You do not have to rely on a particular vendor to maintain the software
- A vendor cannot charge huge, ongoing fees for “maintenance contracts”
- If the vendor goes out of business, you are not “hung out to dry”, and can still install the software on new computers, and “update” the software to work on new platforms.
Like any other feature, you should decide what Open Source is worth to you as a feature, for each piece of software you use, add it to your value of the other features, and compare it to the alternatives. Then, you should compare the total cost of using the Open Source software and the alternatives.
Total Cost of Ownership of Technology Solutions for Small Business
While obtaining Open Source software is usually the cost of downloading it, that is not the only cost of using a piece of software. The primary costs of Open Source solutions are usually the following:
- Information about the product (does it exist, should I use it?)
- Software Compatibility
- Training (including “figuring it out” time)
Information about the Product
Open Source demands greater search costs, starting with the search cost of discovering the existence of the software, and then the cost of deciding whether or not it is right for you. Unlike proprietary vendors, open source solutions usually do not have large marketing teams to throw the software in front of you and tell you it is the greatest thing ever… you have to head to the Internet, search for the software, read reviews, and ultimately download and play with it. While diligent users do this for all software they use, most of us just use what is put in front of us when it comes to software, and what is in front of you is likely not Open Source.
An IT consultant can help you with this. If you already have one, ask him if there are any Open Source alternatives to the software you are buying. Most of us are into “playing with software”, and some of the software you are using may already be Open Source. If you don’t have an IT consultant, and you are a “one-person” shop, ask a client or search for one in your area. The other alternative is to search Google for NAME OF SOFTWARE YOU USE and “Open Source”. For example, “open source ms project” takes you to Open Workbench‘s website.
This is the largest barrier for Open Source software… whether or not it works with “everyone else’s” software. This is most evident when considering OpenOffice.org to replace Microsoft Office – everyone that you share documents with is likely using Microsoft Office, and while OpenOffice.org is 99% compatible with the older version of MS Office, and 97% compatible with the new version, it is still not perfect, especially with spreadsheets and databases. However, OpenOffice.org is 99.99% compatible with Google Docs, so the problem is definitely shrinking.
That said, not all of the programs written for Microsoft Office will work with OpenOffice, so if you have a specialty program that works with Microsoft Office, you need to consider finding an alternative to that program a cost.
Open Source software is sometimes harder to install than proprietary software, simply because it has so many more options than proprietary software. When it comes to desktop software, just accept the defaults and don’t worry about it. For server software, you will need a professional to install it for you. However, you should have a professional helping you install Windows servers too (though that professional will cost you less for Windows).
Support is sometimes more expensive for Open Source software, simply because fewer people use it to do the common tasks, and those that do use it know the “tricks” for free support. Those that can support the software usually have a “higher level of knowledge” than people that only support the common, proprietary options, so they cost more. As the number of items you use goes up, the “higher level of support” cost goes down per-unit, while the licensing remains the same. Commercial Open Source is the exception, where the primary revenue stream is support services. Here, product support is comparable to proprietary products, but you usually pay for them “per incident” instead of them being included (sometimes) in the purchase price of the product. There are also several companies that provide support for Open Source software, such as Open Logic.
However, support for “non-training issues” is needed much less frequently with Open Source software than it is for proprietary software, since the “technical quality” tends to be higher in Open Source software. Open Source software also does not suffer from the “never-ending cascade of malware” that users of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office are so intimate with, so you can take those costs off the top as well.
Training (including “figuring it out” time)
It is a common misconception that Open Source software is more difficult to use than proprietary software. Some of it is, but most of it is just different, especially on the desktop.
OpenOffice.org has a different interface than Microsoft Office, but frankly I find the ribbon in the new version of Microsoft Office a pain in the neck to use. Firefox is just as easy to use as Internet Explorer, but the “advanced features” are configured in a different location, and some features need to be installed via “add-on” instead of simply enabled (but there are many more features available). Comparing Thunderbird to Microsoft Outlook has the same issue, if you are used to Outlook, Thunderbird is very hard to use. However, I use Thunderbird, and using Outlook is disconcerting to me.
If you are being “forced to upgrade” to something new, that is the time to try Open Source software to minimize the training cost. The perfect time to give OpenOffice.org a spin is when you are looking to move to Office 2007, and the best time to try a Linux Desktop is when you are looking with dread at Vista.
Where to go from here…
If you want to give Open Source a try without breaking what works for you now, try Firefox. It is a very slick Open Source web browser. For something more meaningful, try OpenOffice.org for a week without getting rid of your current office solution. Even if you need some compatibility feature, and have to stick with Microsoft Office for that reason, you will have a “feel” for what most Open Source software is like to work with – better in many respects, worse in others, but above all, a little different.
If you are thinking about alternatives, for servers or “total solutions”, you need to talk to an IT professional. Find one that leans towards Linux but knows Windows, and is not religious about it, and one that will honestly sit down with you and evaluate your business. For smaller organizations with only one “general purpose” server, a Windows or Mac server is usually a good choice. However, if you need a server for just one thing (like file sharing), or you have a specialist need (such as version control), Linux servers will likely work better for less money.
When it comes to Open Source software, the Google search is your best friend. Use it to find alternatives to expensive software solutions others propose, and use it to see if someone has created the software you need to fix “that one little problem”. The initial returns on a little bit of searching are very high, no matter what solution you go with.