Open source software could be easier, not harder, to use

Published: Thursday, January 12, 2012

When deciding whether to opt for open source software, there are numerous considerations all companies must take into account.

The difference between an open source product and its commercial equivalent is not limited to one of functionality. A host of issues, affecting everything from total cost of ownership to the training of the workers using the software, must be considered before a choice is made.

However, according to a recent report from Datamation's Matt Hartley, many misperceptions plague open source software in this regard. There is a commonly held belief, he said, that commercial products are easier to use and tend to provide an overall lower total cost of ownership when this simplicity is taken into account.

This may, however, be a serious mischaracterization of the differences between the two licensing models, Hartley said, saying that anti-open source bias is "foolish."

One of the overlooked advantages of open source software, according to the reporter, is its ability to avoid the problem of vendor lock-in. This occurs when a company finds itself stuck with vital information in a proprietary format that is either only supported by one vendor or is no longer supported at all. In such a case, the unfortunate client is, at best, locked into that vendor's offerings for the foreseeable future, regardless of service changes or price hikes. At worst, a company could be saddled with unsupported software and inoperable data if the vendor goes out of business.

Support, Hartley added, is another area in which open source software is often unfairly denigrated in comparison to proprietary options. Although the support offered by commercial software vendors can be comprehensive and easy to use in many cases, this is by no means a guarantee. What's more, clients are likely to pay a considerable sum for that support.

While it's true that open source software support - at its most basic level - is often quite rudimentary, the existence of a dedicated community means that there's a way to address almost any issue, given time. Open source also tends to be much easier to keep up to date than commercial products, and those updates are often provided for free.

Perhaps the most valuable overlooked quality of open source software, however, is its ability to support innovation and change. According to Hartley, proprietary software's stability and predictability - though valuable in and of themselves - are qualities that all too often get in the way of improvements being made to existing processes.

By contrast, open source's flexibility lends itself to rapid implementation of those improvements, and the frequently modular nature of open products - the Datamation writer gave the examples of Wordpress and Firefox, both of which have numerous third-party add-ons - allows them to be customized quickly and easily.

Hartley went on to cite a couple more frequently heard attacks on open source software. The aforementioned ease of use argument, he said, is often far less clean-cut than advocates for the exclusivity of commercial products claim. The difference, in that field, between products like Microsoft Office and LibreOffice is highly debatable, particularly when considering later versions of the former product.

The strength of the argument for open source software use is being recognized more widely of late, as businesses are adopting those products in small but quickly growing numbers, according to experts. In fields where the major open source options are particularly innovative, like database software, that growth is even more rapid.