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Open source software in your online business - advantages/disadvantages

Open Source Software are free applications released under special licensing terms where the core coding is viewable and able to be edited to suit the needs of the user.

Basically, an author or company creates an application then releases it for free distribution, sometimes in co-ordinated projects where it can be further developed by a community of programmers, working individually or in teams, to further refine the product. Sometimes thousands of programmers are involved.

Open Source applications cover a myriad of uses - from entertainment  to enterprise ecommerce. In fact, there's a very good chance that the server your site is hosted on may be powered entirely or in part by Open Source products.

A couple of well known examples of Open Source software are phpBB, a forum system, and FreeBSD, a server operating system from BSD, a version of UNIX® .

The principles of Open Source Software

  • Free redistribution

  • Source code must be included

  • Must allow modifications and derived works

  • Integrity of the author's source code

  • No discrimination Against Persons or Groups

  • No discrimination against fields of endeavor

  • A single license must apply to all users

  • License must Be technology-neutral

Further information regarding these principles can be viewed on the Open Source Initiative (OSI) site. Licensing usually falls under two categories - the GNU GPL and the GNU LGPL. The major difference between the two is that the LGPL  has more restrictions on use and redistribution. 

While the core software itself is free, there can be aspects that aren't. For example, you can be charged for a CD containing a copy of the software. Other important aspects I'll discuss in more detail later on in this article. 

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Advantages of using Open Source software

Open Source software has formed the base of many successful and profitable businesses. Some of the advantages include:

Core software is free

If you're just getting started in online business, cost can be a major factor. Using Open Source software can really cut down on your initial capital outlay. It's also my firm belief that the Open Source community has helped to rein in prices on commercial software over the years.

Evolving software

As mentioned, some Open Source software projects can have huge communities of programmers involved, allowing for the rapid implementation of new features and security fixes. The communities of users and programmers are also invaluable resources for asking questions relating to troubleshooting and suggesting enhancements.

Encourages hands on

When you're short on cash, you are more than likely to want to make modifications to software yourself. I'm no programmer, but the use of Open Source software has encouraged me to go beyond the user interface; to dig into code to try and understand what it does and to make minor edits. As a business owner, it doesn't hurt to understand a little of the voodoo that goes on behind the scenes in the software you use on your site.

Not tied to a single vendor

If you purchase a commercial application, you can then become reliant on a single company to solve your problems and maintain the software - which can also be very expensive. Some commercial software companies may only provide support and upgrades for a limited time before you need to fork out for any further enhancements or assistance.

Disadvantages of using Open Source software

There's a flip side to everything, and in the case of Open Source software it all boils down to the old saying of "there's no such thing as a free lunch". Most of the disadvantages only apply if you're not somewhat code-savvy and willing to get your hands dirty:

Projects can die

Just as with commercial applications, some Open Source projects stall and die - programmers just lose interest with being involved or they become fraught with infighting; arresting further development. You may be left using an application that is full of security bugs, with no-one to fix them; or if you can get them fixed, it will usually require paying someone to do it.

Support issues

If you are using commercial software, the vendor has an obligation to assist you in a timely manner, especially where security bugs are involved. You may find an annoying bug in an Open Source application that you need assistance with, but you may not get it without paying someone to fix it. 

Even with general questions, if you take a look at many forums that act as support centers Open Software applications, you'll see that it's not unusual for questions to go unanswered. The Open Source community does not have a legal obligation to answer your questions. In some cases, you'll need to figure it out for yourself or hire the services of a knowledgeable contractor.

A recent example - I was working with a popular application and a bug became apparent that also had implications in relation to data security. A post made to the support forums went unanswered, so it was necessary to utilize staff to track down the issue and fix it. Total cost, including my time, would have worked out to be a few hundred dollars. To have purchased a commercial equivalent of the application would have cost the same; so in that instance a commercial application would have been a more appropriate choice.

If you're someone who needs phone support or personalized email support - forget using Open Source software, unless you are prepared to pay for it. Open Source support usually consists of forums only.

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New features

Just because you think something would be a great new feature for the software, it doesn't mean the rest of the community may think so :). Again, you may find yourself shelling out to have the feature implemented in your copy of the software.

Making the decision - things to consider

With the plethora of Open Source applications available, you might conclude that you'll never have to buy software. That is quite true, but where you will probably pay for it is in time. Time to set it up, time in modification and time in troubleshooting. If you don't have the time for those things, you'll need to determine if you have the cash to employ others before you go ahead with implementation. Not only that, but whether reliable contractors are available to maintain the software.

If you do decide that Open Source software is right for you, examine all the various software options carefully first.

  • Is the software well established or still in it's infancy?

  • Are there regular updates, patches and new features?

  • Is there a support forum?

  • Are the support forums active? 

  • Do forum participants help each other out? 

  • Are reputable companies using the software?

  • Is the documentation complete and coherent?

  • What are the general costs with hiring contractors who are familiar with the software?

The entire online community, from end users to webmasters and merchants owes the Open Source community a great deal for what it's accomplished over the years. When considering whether to use Open Source software for your online business, it's important to bear in mind that the concept of "free" is related to freedom more than to dollars.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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