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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 2
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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 2 - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 2

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 2

Open source software is a model built upon ideals, most prominent among them the strength of sharing knowledge in building a better product. However, from a consumer’s viewpoint, there is a critical point at which ideals have to meet usability, or else the product is little more than the wrong thing done the right way, and most of us don’t have the luxury of making that choice. It then becomes valuable to understand a user’s advantages and disadvantages in choosing open source software.

For many, the appeal of open source software is the usual lower price. Open source does not mean free, but many of the best open source products are free. LibreOffice, often referred to as “Open Office,” the original open source software it was derived from, is a suite of free programs, including word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, and database applications compatible with their Microsoft equivalents. The price of company-wide Microsoft licenses compared to free is difficult not to appreciate, and while there are tradeoffs, many people consider them more than worth the savings.

Open source programs often have active, vital support and development communities, and while this is true of proprietary commercial software, the open source communities can be much more responsive, especially in a problem-solving way. If an application isn’t doing something correctly, not only will there be sympathy from others experiencing the same thing, but there is likely to be someone working to fix the problem, collaborating with others on the best way to make the adjustment. This is especially true for security vulnerabilities. In some cases, hundreds of diverse developers with a wide range of backgrounds and insights work together in improving the product on a do-it-now basis.

This same diversity also contributes to greater flexibility in development and innovation, which means that new features or more efficient solutions are in constant progression toward some concept of a better product for all users. One practical but often-overlooked feature of this collaboration is documentation in multiple languages. It’s not unusual for instructions in thirty or forty languages to be available for any user, not to mention languages for the programs themselves, so that pull-down menus and help screens are in the user’s preferred language.

We have all been victim in some way to “vender lock-in,” that unenviable situation some users (and many, many government bureaucracies) find themselves in when they’ve purchased proprietary software, built an entire system upon it, and then realize they are either locked in with the only vendor who can make changes to the product at whatever price it sets, or abandoned when a vendor gives up on the product or simply closes shop. With open source software, this just about never happens. It’s still possible to find yourself using something that’s no longer being supported, but the community that remains either works to find other options or develops other options itself. And there is no being held hostage by the only vendor who holds the key.

For open source’s many advantages there are a few drawbacks. It’s true that responsiveness is flexible and quick, but since the standards are often set by the big proprietary applications, open source programs often feel like they’re always a couple of steps behind, especially when it comes to flashier features. When Microsoft adds a beautiful new feature to Word, or when Adobe comes up with something mind-blowing in Photoshop (and both firms do; that’s why they’re so successful), it can be a long time before the open source applications develop something similar, and it almost always feels like that: something similar, but not quite the same. If you’re collaborating with others, new features in proprietary software can also create problems even when the files are compatible with your open source programs.

Perhaps the most noticeable drawback is the feeling that what you’re using is an imitation of something better. It almost doesn’t matter if the open source version was the originator of some concept the proprietary software has adopted as its own standard: if your people are used to using the proprietary program, the switch to the open source program will feel like a step down. Not only will many see it as different; they’ll see it as not as good. It’s a little-known fact that Hydrox cookies have been around longer than Oreos. Because Oreos are the big-name, higher-priced standard, consumers view Hydrox cookies as the cheap knock-off. This Hydrox principle is evident when people switch from Photoshop to GIMP, from MS Office to LibreOffice, and from nearly any other market standard to its open source counterpart. And some of it is warranted—Photoshop is the standard because it’s powerful and elegant, a deadly combination for its competition that’s more than worth it in many consumers’ eyes.

Although many open source programs have development communities a thousand strong, many are the pet projects of one or two developers with a great idea. If they are not joined by a robust, supportive community, the applications remain pet projects, and you do not want to be in a long-term relationship with a pet project if the stakes are high. Lone wolf developers find themselves overwhelmed by bug fixes and feature requests, and when they go off to graduate school or when they get married, their great open source ideas are something to put on their CVs as a really cool thing they did once. Before going with an open source solution, keep an eye on the software support forum. Make sure there’s an active community of more than just a tiny number of developers, and check the release history: if it’s been a couple of years since the last update, you might want to look elsewhere.


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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 2 - Executive Leadership Articles

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