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The benefits of free and open source software

From a historical perspective, users of IT first paid largely for hardware, then software, and today services. Today hardware is inexpensive relative to its historical cost. Today the real cost of software continues to be well beyond what you pay up front for the licence. Hence the focus is more and more on services applied to the hardware and software. In this opportunity open source software is growing at an exponential rate.

What is open source?

In general computing and business terms, ‘open source’ is a reference to open source software. This is software which is developed and distributed for no licence cost for the actual software, and there are savings in both efficiency and cost that you could be making in your business. You are missing out if you haven't investigated it!

Open Source has been referred to as both a philosophy and a methodology. This blog entry discusses software, the source code of which is available to be studied, changed, modified and redistributed in both the changed and unchanged form.

You may have heard of some of the big brand open source software, for example:

Advantages of open source software

Some of the general advantages of open source software are listed below. Of course, in some instances, specific companies have modified the ‘open source licence agreement’, but as a rule so far as open source software is concerned, the following advantages apply.

  • Cost: The software is generally available for minimal or no cost (free in most cases).
  • Modification of the software: The ‘source code’ (the language and files which the software is originally written in and the final software in compiled from) is available with the software. This means that you can see how the software is made, and you can make modifications if required – or if you have a custom solution in mind, you can hire a programmer who can modify the software for you.
  • Rights: You have the right to modify the source code or software.
  • Distribution: You have the right to redistribute modifications and improvements you make to the original code. (Don’t like a feature in your operating system? Change it and let others see your change – imagine if Microsoft Windows was like that!)
  • Use: You have the right to use the software in any way you wish.
  • Independence: The software is not reliant on a specific company remaining in business, but rather a community of users who maintain and update the software (as ‘everyone’ has the code which originally created the software).
  • Unrestricted: No one body has the power to restrict the use of the software.
  • Creates collaborative communities: Collaborative work on problems can be undertaken, with projects being undertaken with members from all around the globe. A truly collaborative scheme.
  • Large support base: Generally, support for open source products is freely available through forums and other methods of documentation. Questions can be freely and easily asked, and solutions provided, given that the source code (the power behind the software, and the planning behind it) is accessible to all users.
  • No lock in to a particular vendor: You are not locked in to a particular supplier of software.

Disadvantages

Open source software is not the solution for all IT expenditure needs. Even though I am definitely a proponent of open source software, there is the fact that I come from a fairly technical information technology background, having an IT degree and also having run an IT services business.

For the technically unsavvy, it may be a little more user ‘unfriendly’. Some of the disadvantages are:

  • Open source isn’t really free: It is often said that open source software is “free, as in a free puppy...”. Implementation can be complex for the software, customisation and setup (unless you have your own skilled IT professionals working in-house or in close proximity).
  • Service level agreements: Historically, a service level agreement for open source software was hard to come by. Nowadays, this is very much part of the commercialisation of open source. Service level agreements are becoming more frequently available for the larger open source software projects.
  • Training is not always available: As with service level agreements, training surrounding open source software packages is becoming increasingly more available, however traditionally this has been a disadvantage of open source software.

Roundup and relevance for commercialisation strategy

Open source is definitely a viable alternative to typical off the shelf commercial or proprietary software.

Whilst the disadvantages may discourage some, it is this author’s opinion that the advantages make it not only a viable alternative but a step in the right direction to a more integrated IT infrastructure – particularly for the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

One of the advantages of having an IT and a law degree is it makes it easier to examine and weigh the benefits, advantages, licence terms and features of sofware. It makes it easier to assess the whole of life cost of proprietary software (as provided by Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Oracle and others) versus open source software.

Knowing about this subject is critical when a client's commercialisation strategy depends on the functionality andwotif_logo cost of a new website, ecommerce facility or enterprise-wide software solution. Indeed the competitive advantage for a start-up can be founded on adoption of cheaper, faster or better IT. This was the case for the online travel booking site, Wotif which used open source software as a corner stone for its extraordinary growth as an Australia Web venture success story.


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