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The current tough economic climate has hit small and medium-sized businesses and start-ups hard, particularly in emerging markets where safety nets are few and far between. Consequently, organisations are looking for every possible way to cut costs and increase profit margins without risking efficiency.
The use of open source software (OSS) as an alternative to proprietary software in the technical management of many business processes is an effective way of doing just that.
What exactly is ‘open source software’?
In summary, the definition of OSS provided by the Open Source Initiative is “computer software which is distributed along with the source code used to create it, under a special licence which allows users to study, change and improve the software.” OSS is largely created collaboratively in the public domain as shared intellectual property, and is very often made available free of charge.
One difference between open source and commercial software is that, when you pay for commercial, you don’t get access to the source code because it is considered someone else’s intellectual property. Proprietary software is often bloated and has a hefty price tag attached to it, especially if the development company monopolises its chosen field – the name Adobe springs to mind in this case.
How can it benefit business?
The IT and software needs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) vary greatly depending on their size and area of business. The use of OSS benefits companies more in need of simple versions of applications, such as word processing or an easily editable website. It also benefits companies already employing staff with adequate IT knowledge and skills, so that they can exploit the opportunities provided by the adoption of OSS in business practice.
Some common, user-friendly technological solutions that OSS can provide include:
- Web browsers and email clients (e.g. Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird)
- Website content management systems (e.g. WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal)
- Office productivity suites (e.g. OpenOffice.org)
- Web servers and database systems (e.g. Apache and MySQL)
- Operating systems (e.g. Linux)
The benefits of using OSS range from lower costs and simplified management to superior software and better accountability. They are described below:
1. Lower set-up and ownership costs
OSS is available free of royalties and fees, leading to zero or very low purchase prices. The software is usually user-friendly and easy to install. It also reduces the need to pay expensive upgrade fees and lowers administrative overheads, maintenance and management costs, aside from possible support, training or bespoke development needs.
2. Simplified licence management
Once the software has been obtained, it can be installed as many times and in as many locations as the business needs. There is no need to count, track, or monitor for license compliance – just download, install and go.
3. Reliability, security and quality
The public nature of the software’s source code promotes a high standard of development quality and reliability. The source code is passed around, tested and modified by thousands of developers and users who are quickly able to identify and correct any ‘bugs’. This can also prevent vulnerability to viruses, security breaches and hack attacks, decreasing the need for virus checking, data loss and downtime (provided the software is kept properly up-to-date with security patches).
Software users can have confidence that there is a basis for the author’s claims of qualities such as security, freedom from vulnerabilities, adherence to standards and flexibility. Proprietary software forces its users to trust the vendor when such claims are made – if the source code is not publicly available those claims can’t be verified.
5. Support and accountability
OSS support is largely equal to that available for proprietary software, and often for the same price or less, if not free-of-charge. Training is becoming more widely available, and many hosting and IT companies are turning to open-source platforms, which means lower costs for the end user. Open source information and support is freely available and accessible through the online community via the Internet. Many tech and web companies are now supporting open source with free online and multiple levels of paid support tailored to small business.
6. Flexibility and freedom
Open source exists as a declaration of freedom of choice – better transparency and accountability permits competition in the market, reducing vendor lock-in and consequent monopoly pricing. It gives you more control and protects against the financial collapse of vendors of key products, or vendors choosing to withdraw support for a particular product. OSS allows businesses to escape ongoing license fees, a lack of portability and the inability to customise software to meet specific needs. If you need something special done, there is undoubtedly an open source developer out there keen for the work.
7. Public collaboration and continuity
OSS promotes reliability and quality through independent peer reviews and the rapid evolution of source code and good design principles. OSS is not dependent on a single entity, so users have the advantage of an active community looking after the future of the software. If a proprietary software company closes shop, the support goes too, but if an OSS provider discontinues its services, any developer can pick up where they left off.