Is Open Source Easier Than Commercial Software?

Wednesday Jan 11th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Both approaches have their strengths, yet the issue of support appears to tip the balance.

In the era of shrinking budgets and ever tightening restrictions surrounding legacy software, I believe the future of enterprise computing is ultimately going to be open source in nature.

On the other side of this debate are those who are steadfast in their belief that open source software actually makes things more difficult to use. The common rationale is that anything open source software can do, closed source (proprietary) software can do better and with greater ease.

I believe it's foolish to consider this anti-open source mindset to be an inarguable truth. In this article, I will take a deep look into some open source success stories and point out areas where open source is actually outperforming the closed source, proprietary alternatives.

Control and vendor lock-in

Finding yourself stuck with legacy software that is no longer being supported is a dangerous place to be in. Even worse than that is being stuck with a vendor lock-in situation. While I certainly can't speak for everyone out there, I do think that most people would rather not find their critical data stuck in a format that isn't exportable to something else.

On the flip side, there's something to be said for running software that provides a decent user experience. It's this single consideration that leads some companies to choose proprietary software. These companies will latch themselves onto the familiarity of specific software bundles because they know it won't lead to any surprises with their IT departments or the end users.

Predictability at the expense of innovation

I think it's obvious that many individuals equate software predictability as something that translates into less hassles in the long run. This thought process ensures end users aren't pestering the company IT department over any confusion when trying something completely "new." This may sound silly, but end users tend to prefer predictability over anything else.

The downside to the above approach is that any new discoveries on how to do things more effectively tend to fall by the wayside. One might even say that predictability stifles innovation, as everyone involved is too afraid to try something new.

I think it's this mindset that keeps so many businesses stuck with the same old proprietary software solutions. Even if there's something available that is more cost effective, the idea of making the switch doesn't feel like a secure bet. Thankfully this type of thinking isn't the same among all companies out there. Sometimes, enterprise users find that trying something new can offer additional benefits.

Extended functionality makes things easier

Despite the above doom and gloom, there's still plenty of open source success stories out there. Some of the best success stories where open source projects beat out their proprietary competition includes software titles like Firefox and content management tools like Wordpress.

With both examples, the end-user came away with a sense of value that apparently wasn't found elsewhere. And thanks to various forms of revenue generation, both projects have managed to fund themselves without the need to sell their software under a proprietary license.

This demonstrates that how software is licensed has nothing to do with its ease of use. Sometimes open source software simply outperforms proprietary software in terms of the overall value provided. Firefox, for example, offered their users the option of extending functionality with browser extensions while Internet Explorer 6 remained the go-to browser among the masses at the time. Which demonstrates that just because something is popular, it may not be the best option available.

Defining easy to use

Earlier in this article, I explained that licensing has nothing to do with software functionality. But often, we will see users or companies choosing to buy proprietary software for no other reason than its believed to be "better" somehow. After all, the old belief that "software that's free must not be as good" still holds truth among some legacy software users.

I believe this kind of thinking is in error. For example, let's look at desktop operating systems. Some end users will claim that Windows is easier to use than Linux distributions such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint. Their number one reason is that these Linux distributions can be difficult to install.

What is not discussed, is that the "easier" Windows installation is generally pre-installed out of the box. Obviously, Windows presents an easier experience over the open source alternative in that example. Had Linux been pre-installed, I promise you the idea of which OS is easier would come out very differently.

Now let's consider Microsoft Office for a moment. If you're someone who's relied on an older release of Microsoft Word, the latest version is going to take some getting used to. The latest version is prettier and it does have a great looking interface. But the fact is that LibreOffice Writer is going to feel more at home than Word 2007.

This may not hold true for the entire Office suite, but when comparing Word vs. Writer it is certainly the case. And for someone coming from a much older Word 2002 release, it's a matter of who duplicates a legacy software experience better.

Open source software is ugly

I think that one of the biggest marks against open source software over the years is that it's considered less attractive than any of its proprietary counterparts. There may be some limited truth to this with some software titles.

But the reality is that there are also open source software titles that are much better looking than their proprietary alternatives due to the control they offer. For example, lets compare Windows 7 to a popular Linux distribution. Windows 7 presents a pleasant enough looking desktop. As far as desktop computing goes, I’ve never had any complaints here. However, this desktop experience is very limited and locked down.

So while I can make minimal changes to the Windows desktop, Linux allows me to choose a completely different desktop altogether. I don't mean changing themes, I mean I can install KDE onto my Gnome desktop simply by using my package manager. At no time did I have to open a browser and download a ton of packages manually. This allows me to make the open source Linux desktop as ugly or attractive as I'd like it to be.

If you find the Windows 7 desktop to be ugly, you will not be able to make these sorts of changes without a LOT of searching on your favorite search engine. Therefore if you consider Windows 7 to be ugly, then you'll have to take some fairly radical steps to correct the issue. That is, unless a simple theme change is enough for you.

Open source doesn't make support difficult

With many proprietary applications, you may find that your support options are limited. Obviously, you may be able to find forums or how-to websites to help with specific issues. However, if you're looking for a company to provide you with authorized support for proprietary software, your options are likely to be limited to those approved by the original software vendor.

On the open source front, however, there are countless options available. Even if the developer of a particular software title ceases to update it, you can always hire someone else to pickup where the original developer left off.

This is the kind of support that really differentiates proprietary vs. open source software solutions. It's one thing to offer support on maintaining a software title, but keeping it up to date requires a completely different level of support. This is an area that I think open source software shines in. And because of this, the freedom to make open source software easier to use is always an option for those willing to support it.

And there we have it: clearly, open source software is just as usable as its proprietary counterparts. As a matter of fact, I believe that when you consider the ability to customize open source software at the developer level, any ease of use issues are a mere freelance development job away from being fixed.

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