Open source revolution

Zero cost, a huge range of programs, and an online community providing updates and solutions – there’s a lot to like about open-source software, but can it help your business? PATRICK STAFFORD dissects the pros and cons.

By Patrick Stafford

Open source revolution

Zero cost, a huge range of programs, and an online community providing updates and solutions – there’s a lot to like about open-source software, but can it help your business? We dissect the pros and cons.

Fancy saving $1000 on your next accounting software package? Or slicing $1400 off the price of your next piece of photo-editing software? Then open source software might be answer to your prayers.

Given the economic downturn, most business owners are wracking their brains on how to cut costs while maintaining and even improving revenue. The answer is online.

The words “open source” have been floating around the internet for a while. By now, you’re likely to have heard or read them in stories related to web technology development. Large companies such as IBM are switching to open-source software, and dramatically reducing costs in the process.

But what is open source?

The modern open-source movement really started to gain momentum in the late 1990s when several software designers and programmers began the Open Source Initiative. The organisation’s purpose is to increase the status of open-source software and its practical benefits.

Open-source software, promoted by the Initiative, generally refers to applications for which the source programming code is public and completely free. Open-source applications are developed in a collaborative manner that allows users to change, improve and distribute the software as they see fit.

The movement has completely changed the way software and the internet is used and developed. Any person is able to enhance, alter and develop open-source applications that are just as good, or even more powerful, than their top-end rivals.

Examples include operating system Linux (a free operating system that is an alternative to Windows), user-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia (a rival to basically every paid-for information database in the world) and internet browser Firefox (the open source rival to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer). These applications have become extremely popular in a short amount of time – Firefox has grabbed a 19% share of the web-browser market just four years after its release.

Advantages of open source

So why is using open-source software such a benefit?

Businesses switching to open-source can save big money on software that replicates the basic capabilities of off-the-shelf software for no virtually no cost. Instead of purchasing software licenses for applications such as Quicken or Microsoft Office, you can download open-source versions of these applications for free.

Even better than the cost savings is the prospect of avoiding vendor lock-in, which refers to the often substantial costs of switching software vendors when you become unhappy or if problems arise. Open-source products allow users to choose between several different applications and switch as often as necessary.

Con Zymaris, chief executive of Cybersource and former director of Open Source Industry Australia, argues it simply boils down to choice.

“You can go and get petrol from any petrol station, but if you can only get petrol from Mobil that reduces choice and competitiveness. Any scenario where you are limited in choice reduces the options, thus the offer of services is nowhere near as strong.”

He also argues that trouble-shooting is easier. Popular open-source programs will have hundreds of independent programmers addressing well-known issues, so answers are usually a Google search away.

Because of the collaborative approach open-source that developers use, programs are updated and improved much faster than off-the-shelf products. In some cases, innovative features developed in the open source world can set an industry standard.

A prime example is web browser Firefox. This completely free open-source application has been the prime developer of ‘tabbed browsing’ – opening multiple web pages in the one window. The feature became so popular Microsoft introduced the concept into Internet Explorer.

Ruslan Kogan, head of electronics group Kogan Technologies – the first Australian company to announce plans for a Google Android phone – says developers are only interested in functionality, not money.

“It all starts in the open source community because that is where the most needs are heard,” he says.

“If functionality is needed, users will create that. A lot of companies may want to block features on devices because they want to make money through another product offering those features… but with open source, if they are needed, they’ll just be integrated in the next release of the product.”

Disadvantages of open source

While there are plenty of brilliant open-source products, there are just as many that are simply not up to scratch. Software experts claim unclear development processes and awareness of glitches only late in the process hinder development.

David Markus, chief executive of IT services firm Combo, says small businesses should beware of programs that rely on a user community.

“The biggest risk that I see regularly is that whoever configures [programs] is the only person who understands how it’s run. You are totally locked in to the individual. Large organisations do use open source, but have transparency and well-documented systems.”

Another problem is security. Hackers are able to know the weaknesses of each program very well, confidential data is sometimes easier to obtain. Companies using open-source programs need to ensure quality firewall and protection programs are in place.

Markus says this can actually increase the costs of running open-source software, because businesses will have to pay for specialised technicians.

And while any technician worth their salt knows a little about open source, finding an expert in these programs is much, much more difficult than usual – and pricey.

“To really get productivity gains from open-source software, you have to take a professional approach to making use of it – and that approach is expensive,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s easier to spend $1000 for a bigger product. I see open source working with individuals and the upper end of SMEs, but I don’t see a place for it in the mid market.”

Open source is also having a detrimental impact on the wider software industry – figures from research firm Standish Group indicate the adoption of open-source development has seen a drop of revenue in the software industry of up to $60 billion annually.

The final word

But most experts agree; the best and most popular open-source programs are a god-send for SMEs. These applications provide everything businesses need from top-end applications for nearly zero expense, with the ability to switch to updated and better versions whenever necessary.

Zymaris says the choice “boils down to cost”.

“If you’ve got a product that costs you $250, as opposed to a product that is free, you have choice and can make a correct judgement call based on your individual or business requirements.”

Businesses need to be aware that while using open-source software will save them money, but they will need to make an investment in terms of time. Getting to know products that are not industry standards will take a while, and using them efficiently will take even longer.

But one of the best things about open source is the range of programs available, from simple web browsers to comprehensive accounting systems. Sites such as Sourceforge.net and Osalt.com provide large directories of open-source products and are a great place to start learning about what’s available.

Here are 10 of the best and most popular open-source programs to get you started.

1. Mozilla Thunderbird – This email product is produced by the same gang behind web browser Firefox. It works in the same manner as Microsoft Outlook, gathering a number of different email accounts in the same application. But with a number of different add-ons and extensions, Thunderbird can be customised as much as an individual or business wants.

Equivalent – Microsoft Outlook Express $94 – $180

 

2. GIMP – Top visual editing programs like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop cost a pretty penny, but this open-source alternative can do nearly everything.

Equivalent – Adobe Photoshop $149 – $1489

 

3. GNUCash – This accounting program implements a double-entry bookkeeping system. The program features small business accounting facilities and even portfolio management. Similar to Quicken.

Equivalent – Quicken Quickbooks $28 – $1178

 

4. OpenOffice Similar to the Microsoft Office suite, it includes programs for word processing, spreadsheet development, PowerPoint production and database management. Supports “.doc” programs, the default, and most popular, file type used in Microsoft Word.

Equivalent – Microsoft Office Suite $368

 

5. Picasa – Developed by Google, this photo-editing software also organises a computer’s photos into a single library, making it easy to locate lost files. Users can also create web albums and make edits similar to Adobe Photoshop.

Equivalent – Adobe Light Room $158 – $478

 

6. WordPress – This blogging application is partly responsible for launching the blog phenomenon across the web, making it easy for anyone to create a blog online and update it frequently.

 

7. Joomla – This is one of the better content management systems online, but has the added benefit of a large user community, constantly solving problems and adding improvements.

 

8. OSCommerce – This commerce and online store-management program that, while basic, provides most of what an online business would need to get going. Sets up features such as PayPal, etc.

 

9. LimeSurvey – An online survey application that allows users with little coding knowledge to create, develop, publish and collect responses to surveys.

 

10. PhpBB – A forum package software application that allows the easy creation of forums for a website. Like most popular open-source packages, the script has a community of developers constantly fixing bugs and improving features.

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