The Real Cost of Open Source Software

The Real Cost of Open Source Software

You get what you pay for!

While that’s true, there are some pretty great things that we seem to get for free, especially here in America.  For example, we have a magnificent freeway system that allows me to travel from one state to another, uninterrupted and at very high speeds.  What a marvel!  The best part is that I’ve never pulled a dollar out of my pocket to pay for those roads.

Now someone will be sure to come back and say: “Hey Buddy, didn’t you know that your taxes paid for those roads?”  Well, you’re right.  Tax money does pay for the roads, but the meager existence I survive on made a meager contribution to those wonderful roads.  Let me ask you something: have you heard of the 80/20 rule?  If not you can find plenty of books about it, like this one.  The substance is that a small portion of the population makes the biggest contribution while the rest of the population makes the remaining small contribution.

That’s how it is with taxes and roads.  A small percentage of the tax paying base contributes the large majority of the taxes while the rest of us pick up the peanuts and popcorn.  I could extend this analogy and discuss private roads and other niche modes of travel, but I think you get the point so far.  Right?

Yeah, but what’s that got to do with open source software?

I’m glad you were wondering, and (not surprisingly) I think they go together quite well.  You see, the best open source software typically wasn’t made by an altruistic genius living off his parents unending generosity.  Nope, there really isn’t some guy whose sole interest in life is to make the world a better place by providing his expertise for free.  Sorry if that bursts a few bubbles (both developers and consumers).  The fact is that those guys that write open source software in their basement might be coding geniuses, but that doesn’t mean they have deep understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve.

That last sentence is really important to understand.  Software is meant to solve problems, but it can only create worthwhile solutions to the extent that the developer understands the true problem.  The scope of its usefulness will be determined in part by how many other people have that same problem.

The most useful open source software

So you probably still don’t believe that I’m talking about open source software.  Let me get to the point.

The most useful open source software projects are the result of a collaboration.  Usually this collaboration occurs between two very different but complimentary skill sets.  The first of these in importance has to be someone that understands a problem very well.  Notice that you generally don’t start with a programmer!  That’s really important.  The crucial element in coming up with a good piece of software is a thorough understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.

After you have a good understanding of what you want to accomplish, then you need a good programmer.  But before I tell you about the programmer, you tell me how many really good doctors or lawyers (or any other professional for that matter) you know that work for FREE.  Go ahead, I’m waiting….  What?  You can’t think of any?  In fact, if they’re really good, do they generally make more or less than their counterparts?  I can already see the comments coming in with this exception or that, but keep in mind what were after here is the rule, not the exception.

So, if you have a really good understanding of the problem, then you need a really good developer to be able to translate that into a worthwhile solution. Let’s go back to our analogy for a minute. Imagine having a really good understanding of the problem of interstate commerce.  You know that large trucks weighing many tons are going to be speeding from one place to another and that the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicine we need and on and on will all depend on the solution.  Just imagine what would happen if you chose a crappy company, a “basement programmer” of sorts to build those roads.

If you don’t have a high quality contribution from both the problem expert and the developer then you aren’t likely to end up with a quality solution to your problem.

The 80/20 rule of open source software

Remember the 80/20 rule?  It’s not that far off to say that 80% of open source software is either too narrowly focused to be useful to anyone or it’s garbage.  Another unsurprising outcome is that the best open source software usually resulted from a funded project, paid for by a company or consortium that had a very good understanding of a general problem.  Some of the best open source software started it’s life as a closed source product and had almost strictly commercial aspirations.  Somewhere along the line the project either lost funding or it was discovered that it didn’t have a commercial base that justified further development and so it was released to the public.

Another common occurrence is found in academia.  Many wonderful contributions to the current open source buffet were the product of research which was funded by grants from companies or agencies interested in a specific problem that the software would solve.  Again you see that the project is funded and involves collaboration between  a problem expert and an expert programmer.

A third model is what has come to be called professional (or commercial) open source.  In this model, companies offer a tiered set of service plans that accompany the open source software and accommodate different business needs.  The initial tier is open source and free to use.  Elevated tiers address risk, guaranteed service levels and advanced business functions.  Elevated levels come with a cost.

Shouldn’t all software be FREE?

There may be some purists out there that will suggest professional open source isn’t true open source.  There area  lot of people that think all software should be free and communal.  I’m not just talking about patents (that’s another can of worms).  I’m talking about the people who think that since there’s no reproduction cost for the download (no discs or manuals) that they shouldn’t have to pay for it, or at most they should have to pay only for bandwidth to download it.

News Flash.  If you’re a business owner and your livelihood depends on the solutions that software provides, then you might want to consider the ‘source’ of your open source software.

When I said at the beginning that you get what you pay for, it’s very true.  I’ve found time and time again that often the real cost of open source software must be measured in a number of parameters.  Here’s what I think you really need to ask:

  • How well does this software address my specific problem?
  • How mature is the software and what are the nature of it’s recent changes?
  • Is there commercial support available?
  • Is there an upgrade path (either commercial or open source)?
  • How many of my own hours am I going to spend trying to make it work?
  • How many hours will I spend evaluating the alternatives?
  • What was the motivation of the developer in producing the software for free?

What are my hours worth?

I’ve contributed to open source software on many occasions.  I’ve even released some of my own software developments to the open source community.  It might sound strange that as I get more serious about my business, I tend to look for paid, commercial solutions to meet my needs.  Even though I’m a programmer and could conceivably make any changes/fixes that I wanted, I find that the value of an hour of my time and the number of hours required to make the contribution back to the “community” is often more than if I just paid someone else to use their service.

I’ll be following up with a series on specific problems that open source software solves and how the open source offerings stack up against the commercial offerings.  Take a minute right now and leave a comment telling me what problems you’re trying to solve right now so I can build a list of possible solutions.

If you would like me to work with you to identify the right software for your company and web based projects, use the button below to contact me.

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5 Responses to “The Real Cost of Open Source Software”

  1. Beau Riche April 13, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    Daniel- Been a long time reader and first time commenter. I am wondering if you might post a followup to this with a list of Open Source software that you think is worthy of the 20% rule. I have really enjoyed your recent posts keep it up!

    • Daniel April 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm #


      That’s a great idea. I’ve actually been compiling the list and will do a post on it soon.


  2. Bryan April 13, 2010 at 7:31 pm #

    I agree with the 80/20 rule here. And even the really great, useful open source software usually isn’t as user friendly as commercial and corporate software. How difficult is it to install some software on a linux-based operating system versus windows or a mac? How much are you really saving versus the time spent troubleshooting and looking for missing software dependencies.

    As far as useful opensource software, I have found CloneZilla and GParted to be the top two most useful for myself.

  3. Bryan April 13, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    I wanted to add two other software applications that I use frequently. I don’t believe they are opensource, but they are free. Defraggler and CCleaner. Keep my windows OS running nice.

  4. Brent March 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

    There are some open source software programs that can come in handy for people that can’t afford the more expensive proprietary products like Adobe and Microsoft.

    I know when I first got started online, I had to use software programs like Gimp, Kompozer, and OpenOffice to name a few. I sure was happy to have them.

    I agree there’s a lot of junk out there, but it’s good to know that we still have some reliable open source software that can get the job done when in a pinch.

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