Business Opportunities of Open Source

Take it from the geeks, open-source software can benefit your company.

Take it from the geeks, open-source software can benefit your company.

A couple of weeks back, I was asked to sit on a panel discussing business tips for a particularly geeky crowd. The group in question comprises users and coders with a passion for a piece of open-source software called Drupal – the Content Management System that, among many others, powers, The Onion, Amnesty International, and the one you’re reading now.

The evening’s discussion was about how to run a business as an open-source software vendor. We traded tips on staffing, sales, customer service, and pricing, and every piece of information I picked up has immediate, concrete value for me.

There’s something the broader business community can learn from the Drupal folks: how open-source software can benefit your company.

Open-source software is licensed in such a way that anyone can use, copy, change, improve, and redistribute it. Where most proprietary software is developed behind closed doors, with NDAs and non-compete agreements flying around, open-source software is generally planned, coded, and documented by large, distributed, global communities of developers.

Open-source software is free in three important ways:

  1. Free as in free speech: You can take your software and do just about anything you want with it: remix, customize, extend, or share it.
  2. Free as in beer: Most open-source software is released without license fees, meaning there is no charge to download and install it.
  3. Free as in kittens: This is my favourite open-source truism. Although open-source software often doesn’t have licensing costs attached to it, it can prove costly to customize and keep up to date – and you often wind up paying a commercial vendor to provide support, since there’s no money-back guarantee (or hidden price tag to cover the product’s support costs).

So, if open-source software is so free and fabulous, why isn’t everyone using it?

It’s not just the marketing budgets at Apple and Microsoft. The biggest reason is that there’s some truly great software out there that doesn’t yet have a truly great open-source alternative. Our business, for example, uses a mix of open and proprietary applications. On the proprietary side, we run Macs with their native OS X operating systems; we use Adobe Creative Suite for our design work; and we’re all bopping our heads to iTunes on a daily basis.

A year ago, we ditched Microsoft’s Office suite in favour of OpenOffice (or more specifically, NeoOffice, which is a Mac-specific OpenOffice install), and I definitely don’t miss the animated paper clip. NeoOffice has saved significant spending on license fees, a boon that shows its face every time we hire a new employee. We’re also fans of the Firefox web browser, and especially the rich library of add-ons that make our coding work infinitely more efficient (not to mention how easy it is to check the weather).

Chances are, there’s an open-source package out there that can save your business money and give you  functionality you don’t currently have. You should consider who you’re going to call for support, though. If you’ve got in-house tech support, you’ll be fine, but for those of us too small for an IT department, it’s best to look for consultants specializing in the open-source software you’re considering. As with Drupal, there’s a whole community of geeks out there ready to provide you with commercial support for your open-source products.