Pros and Cons of Free Open-Source Software for Businesses
Free software! Sounds too good to be true. However, there are hundreds of thousands of free software applications available to download and use right now. And some of those applications could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The software in question is known as free open-source software (FOSS). And there are FOSS packages available for most business applications. Libre Office, for example, will provide you with the functionality of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Publisher, and they are all compatible with Microsoft file formats. You could replace MS Outlook with FOSS apps such as Thunderbird or Mailsprung. And there are open-source accounting apps, project management tools, video editors, and more. And, of course, WordPress is open-source software, too.
What Is Free Open-Source Software
Commercial application developers do not generally make the source code of their applications available to the public. Hence the term proprietary software, which, in essence, means owned software.
With open-source software, on the other hand, the source code to an application is publicly available. So, anyone can see the code, use it, and modify it. Interestingly, the word free when used in terms of open-source software does not mean zero monetary value. The free is used in the same way as it is in free speech. Anyone is free to use, copy, study, and modify the software. However, most open-source applications are also free of charge to end-users.
The above descriptions might lead you to believe that the development of open-source software is a free-for-all mess. However, the core source code, or perhaps the source-source code, is controlled centrally. So, anyone can download and modify the code, but they can't touch the original software. Development of the core code, including version control, is usually managed by volunteers. And the developers writing the code are also usually volunteers.
Of course, large open-source projects do have bills to pay. And there may be some paid employees on the team. Even so, open-source projects tend to be not-for-profit operations funded by donations rather than license fees.
Advantages Open-Source Software
Businesses might look upon FOSS with more than a bit of skepticism. After all, anything free can't be as good as the premium alternative that costs you money, right?
However, FOSS has come a long way since the 1980s, when open-source software first appeared. Indeed, many major corporations now use FOSS. So, what are the advantages of using free open-source software?
Low or No Initial Cost
The first advantage a business gains from using FOSS is the low cost of acquisition. Indeed, most open-source applications are free to download. Compared to the license fees for something like MS Office, the low initial cost of FOSS is a significant benefit for businesses.
The functionality of FOSS applications is usually on a par with that of commercial software. Indeed, most users would struggle to find something they can't do with Libre Office that they could do with MS Office, for example. However, some FOSS does lack some of the advanced functionality of the commercially available alternatives.
Relatively small teams of developers usually develop commercial software packages. On the other hand, a FOSS project could have thousands of developers designing and improving the software. So, bugs and glitches are more likely to be discovered and corrected in open-source software. And many pairs of eyes are better than one or a few, so FOSS is usually bug-free and reliable.
Commercial software developers must make money to survive. And one of the ways software companies make money is by charging for new versions of their software. What's more, support for the older version will be withdrawn at some point. FOSS is constantly being improved, and new versions are made available to users free of charge.
Fans of FOSS would argue that FOSS is more secure than proprietary software. The reasoning behind this argument is that FOSS projects have more developers, so security weaknesses are discovered and fixed faster. Commercial operations, though, squeeze security fixes into developers' already busy schedules, which can lead to delays in fixing security vulnerabilities.
Ability to Modify the Source Code
For larger organizations, the ability to modify the source code of FOSS can be a significant benefit. Suppose you have a software application that meets 90% of your requirements, for example. In that case, you could employ developers to tweak the software to meet 100% of the requirements.
No Licensing Restrictions
There are usually no restrictions on how you use FOSS and to whom to give the software. So, if you hire a new employee, for example, you simply install another copy of the software. If you want employees to have the software loaded on their home computers, that's no problem either.
Disadvantages of Open-Source Software
So, there are some significant advantages to using open-source software in a business. However, like everything, FOSS does have disadvantages as well.
FOSS is Not Entirely Free
Open-source software can be downloaded and installed free of charge. However, there are still training and support costs to be considered. Some FOSS projects offer paid support services. Alternatively, you could hire a contractor with experience in your chosen open-source application to support your installation. Either way, businesses cannot afford critical systems to go down. So, the long-term cost of the ongoing support of a FOSS solution must be considered.
Open-source software is generally not as user-friendly as commercial software. And it is probably fair to say that FOSS isn't as pretty, either. The slight lack of user-friendliness is perhaps because developers, rather than businesspeople, drive the development of FOSS. So, FOSS may be technically sound and even innovative. But FOSS is often designed with the developer in mind rather than the average end-user.
The community usually supports open-source software. FOSS communities are typically helpful and well-informed. However, you are not going to get things like guaranteed response times with open-source software. So, businesses might need to employ a third-party support provider to support an open-source solution.
Security is mentioned above as a potential benefit of FOSS. However, it must also be pointed out that open-source software is developed in an open environment. So, a developer with malicious intent could get onto the development team of a FOSS project. The counter-argument to that, though, is that the many other developers working on the project would notice any malicious code.
The developers may lose interest in a FOSS project. And, when developers decide to move away from a project, you could be left with software that will not improve. And, if a FOSS project were to stall, support from the remaining community might be limited, too. However, it is not unknown for commercial software companies to discontinue products, too.
There is nothing inherently wrong with free open-source software. And, if you have in-house technical support, implementing FOSS solutions could save your business a lot of money. But it is best to consider the disadvantages of open-source software as well as the advantages. So, hopefully, the above points will help you make an informed decision about using FOSS for your business applications.
Written by Shane Zilinskas, Founder
Published April 6, 2021