Advantages of Open Source Software

Having recently finished a stint at a proprietary software company, I’ve been able to cement some of my opinions about the advantages of open source software.

February 8, 2018

Many small businesses don’t even consider whether a piece of software is open source or proprietary. And even if they do, salespeople are often poo-pooing open source as insecure, bereft of support, and insecure. But the fact is there are many advantages of open source software, and small business owners should weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.

Advantages of open source software: No vendor lock-in

With software that’s truly open source, ANYONE can look at and edit the code. This means that you are not a prisoner of your software vendor. If there’s a feature you need, you’re free to hire anyone to make that change for you. When a relationship with a third party goes south, nothing is stopping you from finding another one to support you.

Most proprietary apps small businesses would use keep their data in a proprietary format. This means that you can’t just snag your data and move on to another app without it being a painful process. That’s on purpose. A software company that keeps your data on their own servers (or cloud) and only gives you a rudimentary reporting tool has got you right where they want you — locked in. Most heavy open source applications keep data in something like MySQL; you can dump EVERYTHING out to a text file, and do whatever you want with it. This may include massaging the data a bit and moving it over to another application.

Advantages of open source software: It’s probably cheaper

Most open source software doesn’t come with any price tag at all. And if you can implement it yourself, there won’t really be much for initial investments. Any expense I can think of right off the bat would be maybe a new server to run the application (if it’s an ERP or something major) and possibly fees associated with data conversion.

Advantages of open source software: Community

While may proprietary apps have user communities (Quickbooks comes to mind), they’re still just a bunch of users. With open source software, it’s a real community where you can have a say in the live product. It’s very easy to bend the ear of the developers. Just join the dev mailing list! If you have a burning need for a feature, ask. If it makes sense, the devs may very well implement it.

I talk about it more in depth in Where to find open source software support, but getting support in the community is also just a message or an email away. I often ask questions on mailing lists, and get bombarded sometimes with people trying to help me through whatever it is I’m having trouble with.

Advantages of open source software: Development cycle

The developers making open source software are interested in making something that works, first and foremost. Proprietary software companies are focused on making money. Yes, open source may also be trying to make a buck. And proprietary companies are probably trying, as long as shareholders are content, to make a useful product. But those two goals can be at odds with each other. Would you rather go with someone whose main mission is to make money off of your patronage, or do you want to journey with an application that is developed with usability in mind?

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