Pros and Cons of Open Source Software

Monday Oct 10th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Does the cost advantage justify the limits on functionality?

No matter which open source platform you prefer, your options for open source software are growing every day. New ideas for open source software are surfacing all the time. Yet despite the ongoing progress here, some users find themselves wondering how these applications compare to their closed source counterparts.

In this article, I'll explore commonly used open source applications and comparing them to their closed source cousins. I’ll also look at stability, features, functionality and whether changing over to an open source alternative is a viable option for most people.

And even though I can only cover a fraction of the open source/closed source applications available today, I 'll touch on the most common software titles.

Microsoft Office Vs LibreOffice

One of the most commonly used application bundles within the enterprise space is Microsoft Office. Despite all of Office’s capabilities, it's not uncommon for companies to consider an alternative option such as LibreOffice to shave down software costs. Another advantage to considering an open source alternative to Office include avoiding lost product keys or the discs the software came from.

Now it's important to clarify that Microsoft Office isn't set as a single suite of software. Like many Microsoft offerings, Office comes in a variety of options, ranging from the Student edition up to the Professional edition. As one might expect, the pricing for each is reflected within these differences.

For most enterprise users, Microsoft Office really comes down to the following applications: Excel, Word, Outlook and Powerpoint. The more expensive versions of Office include OneNote, Access, Project and Visio, among a few others. In the interest of not making this article about a single product line, I will stick to Word and Excel for my MS Office suite examples.

When it comes down to Word vs LibreOffice Writer, the biggest differences are missing features on the LibreOffice side. The biggest features missing from Writer are a grammar check tool, as well as some difficulty with docx page layout when importing from an existing MS Word document.

Since LibreOffice branched away from OpenOffice, however, the docx issues have improved and are rarely a problem. Still, formating errors do occur occasionally with docx documents.

Next up we have Calc vs Excel. Based on my experience, the biggest issue used to be trying to work with large spreadsheets where Calc would crash. In contrast, Excel had no issues here. And with more recent updates to LibreOffice, I've seen improvements here, as well.

However, I think that Excel may still have some advantages with regard to larger spreadsheets, even with Calc improvements. Excluding these differences, I've found little compelling reason to avoid LibreOffice as a viable alternative. It's available for three platforms where Microsoft Office is only available for two.

With 98% of Word and Excel functionality provided for free, LibreOffice wins with its price of zero dollars while MS Office wins with its available functionality for enterprise users.

Gimp vs Photoshop

I have the benefit of a die-hard Mac enthusiast for a wife who also doubles as a trained photographer. Photoshop is a huge part of her daily routine. In my own home office, though, Gimp rules the day for photo editing needs.

My wife's view of Gimp is that it may be free of charge, but it lacks the desired familiarity most Photoshop users want from their photo editing software. My view is that, for most people, it offers 98% of what Photoshop does without the hefty price tag.

The biggest Gimp shortcoming has to be its lack of familiarity and expected shortcuts. Another item that frustrates new Gimp users are the floating aspects of the user interface. As of Gimp 2.6, I'm still seeing a floating GUI despite the promise of an anchored GUI in Gimp's future.

Apparently there are also select features that only hardcore users would ever notice that Gimp is lacking. I suspect most of these missing features involve other Adobe software titles that complement Photoshop.

Gimp is perfect for what I need to do in Photoshop. As a matter of fact, I've used Gimp for so many years now that I find myself getting lost when trying to use Photoshop in any capacity.

Gimp wins in the price category while Photoshop offers some "extras" that many people have deemed critical. I tend to believe most of these people simply prefer to use what's familiar to them. Your own experiences may vary.

Internet Explorer vs Firefox

Over the years, I've found that Firefox has one gigantic edge over Internet Explorer. Besides being less of an hacker exploit target than the Microsoft browser, Firefox has more available browser add-ons than any other browser out there. Google's Chrome might be catching up, but I believe that Firefox is still the winner in terms of raw add-on numbers.

Despite everything above, Internet Explorer has managed to make significant improvements with its browser interface – and even security features – which makes it a compelling browser. In addition to Internet Explorer's recent improvements, Mozilla has managed to speed up new Firefox releases to the degree that most of my old browser add-ons no longer work.

I'm usually thrilled about rapid software development, however the current pace of the development of Firefox is killing add-on compatibility. As of this moment, I literally have one working add-on out of six.

Meanwhile, you can be assured that if you had something working add-on related with Internet Explorer, chances are it's still working even with recent updates. It's a problem that Firefox needs to address in my opinion. Both browsers are free of charge.

Open source vs closed source software

So, what's next then? Do we advocate using open source software because it's available at no cost? Or do we instead choose to spend money on proprietary software because in some instances it can offer us with slightly more functionality? My thoughts on this are simple, as I can only speak for myself.

I believe that if you are purchasing something, it should give you the kind of value you’ve come to expect. Unfortunately, most proprietary software fails in this area. While there are certainly exceptions here, most of it is just repackaged service packs of the same software you bought initially.

To me, this is a huge turn off. Microsoft Windows is a screaming example of this problem. It offers only slight improvements to get you to spend more money on something that, honestly, wasn't needing to be replaced in the first place. It's even worse when you find yourself needing to buy new hardware two years later as there's some new "feature" that requires the latest thing from partner hardware vendors.

On the flip side of the coin, I've found that using open source software doesn't put me through this maze. I can take my same hard-earned money, purchase compatible hardware/peripherals for my Linux operating platform and use all of it until I choose to upgrade hardware. I do this not because software is pushing in this direction, but because I’m really ready to upgrade my hardware.

I look at Linux distributions like DSL or Puppy Linux and see a glimmer of the commonsense our parents and grandparents had. Some of you might even remember those crazy times, back when people would use something until it wore out or instead of replacing it, learned to fix it themselves.

I think that once we remove the politics from open vs. closed source software and consider which option is offering the most appropriate value for what we need, the choice is clear.

If you have specific requirements that dictate that using the open source alternative simply isn't practical, then clearly buying the proprietary application is the way to go. But this mindset of "make it easy because I'm lazy" is utter nonsense.

There are countless times where using the freely available, open source alternative would indeed work just fine for the majority of software requirements. I believe that by working together, both proprietary/closed source and open source software have a place in this world. Because embracing both options when appropriate translates into true software freedom.

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