The last decade has seen a boon in the use of open source software (OSS) in all forms of business – from healthcare and aviation to tourism and finance. But what are the pros and cons of using open source technology in your business? And would the nascent industry benefit from formal regulations? This article, aims to addresses these questions…
OPEN SOURCE VS CLOSED SOURCE SOFTWARE
Open source software (OSS) is computer code that is available to everyone, free of charge, through a licensing agreement which allows users to view, share and modify the original software. This means that developers around the world can change and contribute to the technology.
Closed source software (CSS), or proprietary software, can only be shared through a licensing agreement with authorised users. These users, in most cases, will not have access to the source code; and even if they did, the software license would impose restrictions on modification as the technology owners would also own the intellectual property rights. Most businesses that use closed source technology want to control their product and the user experience offered to their clients.
The main differences between OSS and proprietary software fall under these categories: cost, service, innovation, flexibility, security, usability, and regulation.
Open source software is free to download and is cost-effective for your business if your company has the technical know-how to maintain the software and the resources to train and support staff. Your company needs to be able to allocate resources to the deployment, maintenance and management of the technology. Even with these associated costs, OSS is considerably cheaper than its counterpart, closed source. More so, it can aid the time to the market, since one can focus on developing new features not in the open source technology. However, one has to take into account that open source technology has been given a bad reputation, especially when it comes to software, due to the lack of a regulatory body that controls the code base.
In comparison, closed source software is relatively more expensive. However, it is important to keep in mind that depending on the user needs, CSS does take away development overhead costs as the core elements of the technology are already developed by the owners.
In some cases, the quality of open source technology cannot be guaranteed, as there may not be an organisation that takes ownership of the product. However, some open source technology does have service frameworks in place ensuring that technology contributors meet a certain standard before contributing to the platform. Also, in the past few years some open source companies have started to provide on-going support for their open source technology for a fee – this is still cost-effective given that users already have access to the source code. Though usually lacking a dedicated service channel, a vast online user community is always available to provide support to users of open source software. The countless number of online blogs and forums dedicated to OSS support are a testament to the collaborative power of the internet. Tools and instructions can be given on these online forums by independent tech developers, however, it is important to note that free support may not live up to your expectations and there may not be a timeframe for when you can expect to hear feedback.
Proprietary software companies also provide on-going support to its customers through specific online forums, and direct call centres where users can receive support and assistance. Customer support packages, training, and after-sale care are also often provided directly from technical support or company representatives. And in some instances, they provide free updates, which may not be available on open source technology. The drawback is that if closed source software has any issues, the problem can only be addressed directly by the proprietor.
OSS users want to create software solutions that meet their specific needs without having to develop solutions from scratch. Anyone can change open source software for any reason, and because coders and developers have access to the source code, they can innovate easily. For example, Google, Tesla and Microsoft have created technology that is open and available to the public, which has led to the development of numerous innovative technology products. If Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology was not open source, it would be prohibitively expensive for individuals to develop on their own, due to the vast amounts of research and development needed for this type of technology. Experts can leverage open source technology and create something innovative and inspiring.
Open source software is constantly being updated and modified by developers; the maintenance and growth of an OSS is a collaborative effort between all these users via social media and online forums. The open source software changes positively and quickly with the community involvement, allowing better versions of the software to be released to the public.
With closed source software, updates and improvements are the responsibility of the proprietor’s tech team alone. Users are restricted because they are dependent on the owners of the IP to make updates, for which they are often charged extra. To mitigate risk, it is important to conduct a thorough investigation on technology solutions before implementation. At Eroe Consulting, when a client wants to adapt a technology, we are sure to ask them exhaustive investigative questions that encourage them to view their business in the long run to see how the selected solution may impact their operations.
Open source software gives businesses the freedom and flexibility to change and tweak software to suit their needs without the hassle of locking into contracts with vendors. The result is a customised piece of software that meets their business requirements. OSS is also sustainable as improvements are constantly being made by a community of users. This lets businesses avoid having to replace software that is not being maintained or supported properly, or even abandoned by vendors. Users of closed source software, on the other hand, are dependent on software vendors and their timelines, capabilities, and pricing.
A major source of concern for users is software security. It is important to note that open source technology is not always developed in a controlled environment. Having said this, however, products that have a strong online community and a dedicated development team are actually quite safe and secure. Keeping software open means that there is transparency where independent developers can view the source code and look for bugs and back door Trojans. The common adage used to describe this is Linus’s Law, named after the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds. “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” The more people who can see the code means that there are more people testing and looking for vulnerabilities, and therefore, more people finding solutions and improvements.
Proprietary software keeps the source code hidden, making it difficult for anyone to view the product and its security features. If the dedicated product development team of a CSS misses a problem, then it may take months, or even years for it to be found and fixed.
Open source software is not usually targeted for end-users. OSS is aimed at coders and developers for them to understand and use appropriately. This means that if you do not have the technical skill to understand the code, then you will need a tech person to guide and support you. Proprietary software on the other hand, is aimed at end users, and they are traditionally easier to use and navigate than OSS. So, if the end user is not a developer, then open source software is not the best option to use for your business.
Open source software is more flexible by definition, but it is usually not as user-friendly as closed source software. With OSS, you can make whatever changes you want to, but it is also on you to fix any problem or issues that may arise. Proprietary software is the reverse – its ease of usability is higher, however, the structure is rigid and not transparent. Vendors of proprietary software have the full responsibility of finding bugs and implementing updates and fixes to their technology.
Due to its flexibility, open source software has gained popularity over the past few years with small and large businesses alike. Many of today’s popular online products and services have been built on open source technology. As open source collaboration increases, so does the need for an industry regulatory body and basic governing guidelines. To date, businesses can acquire open source technology with little or no regulation. There are no policies in place that define how developers can and should contribute to the improvement of open source software and hardware. Rules should be set in place to ensure the quality of the product while also protecting intellectual property rights.
Proprietary software companies have more clear-cut goals, rules, and ownership for their products. The technology may be more stable than open source, as the products are managed by the owners. Having an unambiguous ownership structure also means that technology approval processes by any governing bodies or organisations are faster and more streamlined. …..
Though both, open source and closed source technologies, have their advantages and disadvantages, any adaptation to new technology needs to come after clear and thorough evaluations of long term business goals. In some cases, companies may choose to make their software open source, to promote a new technology. For example, Tesla opted to make some elements of its electric car technology open to the public to promote interest and the growth of the industry. Companies like this, however, will usually have another version of its technology kept somewhat closed and tightly managed to ensure its integrity and that users will receive good value for their money.
This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Eroe Consulting. Please see Eroeconsulting.com/terms-and-condition for more details.