Open source software (OSS) have been around for quite a while now and have gained ground over the years. A lot of interesting and useful projects in open source are not only gaining market share (e.g. Firefox) but in many cases are even leaders of the pack (eg Apache). So much so that many organizations are looking at free or open source solutions as an alternative for cutting software license costs. We try to dispel myths and let you know what is the current and possible future state of affairs in this area.
Myth 1: Open source
= zero cost
This is probably one of the biggest myths that surround OSS. The “Free” in “Free and Open Source” does not mean that it won't cost you anything in the long run. Instead it means that you have the “freedom” to do what you want with its code. This includes modifying it, giving it away for free, or even charging for it. The freedom is not absolute however. There are restrictions placed on your behavior in case you wish to use, modify and distribute OSS. You will also need to pay for support in case you use it. Which means that if you are running your company on computers and these are critical to your functioning, OSS is not going to come at zero cost to you. You will need to pay for support as you would really not want to face downtime in case something goes wrong. The TCO matter about proprietary software licenses including support and OSS software with support as a paid add-on is debatable and we suggest you study the total economics of moving to OSS over a proprietary solution taking all of this under consideration.
Myth 2: Open source
= no licenses
Another mistake that people make is that they think by selecting open source software they needn't worry about licenses. Unfortunately, that is again not true. There are tons of different licenses for different OSS and one has to be compliant with all of them legally as with any proprietary software license. The GPL is one of the most famous of these licenses.
Myth 3: Free & open
source = Linux
This is probably one of the biggest mistakes people and organizations make. Open source only means software whose source code is available for you to use. This does not tie in with any particular operating system. In fact, taking a look at the most popular lists at SourceForge.net (one of the biggest repositories of open source software), I found that in the top 25 list of all time popular open source software, each one of them is available as a Windows binary, with 16 of them being only for Windows.
There are tons of open source projects that run on Windows and some of the
most popular Linux OSes have larger installed bases on Windows (such as Firefox).
You also get a lot of free software available for Windows as well. Not just from
Microsoft (such as IE, Visual Studio 200x Express, SQL Server Express and many
others), but also from many third party companies.
Using open source software does not mean that you can only use them on Linux. You can very easily use the open source software on Windows as well. Linux does come with a huge number of open source software out of the box though.
Open source is here to stay no doubt. Not just on the Linux side but also for a lot of proprietary software developers as well. Most large companies – IBM, Sun, HP and Microsoft – are all investing in open source quite deeply. Recently, Microsoft contributed a large amount of code to both the Apache foundation as well as to Samba to make them more interoperable with Windows. Sun has been talking of making Java completely open source for a while and it looks as if this might be true soon. Applications such as Firefox are gaining ground over Internet Explorer and Gimp is now wandering into the lairs of the graphic designers in place of PhotoShop.
But there is a darker side to the picture as well. Not all open source projects continue to do well. Nessus – one of the most powerful open source network vulnerability scanners – had to turn proprietary to sustain itself. Recently news about stagnation of development due to no contributors in the OpenOffice.org project was reported.
The future however continues to be bright for open source. As mentioned above, most large companies are investing in this. You need to keep an eye out on which projects are really well supported – as these are projects that will continue to flourish and grow. Smaller projects will fall by the wayside – especially in a bad economy where developers might not be able to contribute as they are busy holding on to jobs that actually pay!
As with any software procurement exercise, even for open source software you will need to perform feasibility and cost studies. You also need to know how and who to turn to in case of issues that come up. Play the different software vendors (OSS and proprietary) against each other and get discounts wherever possible as well as look at package deals such as BizSpark or DreamSpark that reduce costs all round. And remember that you should not go by any hype – whether from a proprietary vendor's marketing droid or from (almost religious) open source fanatics. Take what you require and use both types of software in the best possible combination.