Technology

Is your website built in open or closed source code? And why it’s important you know – Part 1

Craig Reardon /

There are three really important questions smaller business operators need to know about their website technology: Who recommended the website technology you are currently using? How impartial was that recommendation? And why is it important anyway?

The answers to these lie in a debate the software industry has been battling out for decades now.  That of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ source development code.

Before you click over to something a little more interesting than computer code, it’s important that you read on. Because not knowing the difference can greatly impact your expenses, your sales and even your reputation.

The open source community method

By definition, ‘open’ source means that software and now web developers are able to access the computer programming of the software or website in question and alter it to create new functionality. 

Typically created by enthusiast developers interested in creating what is essentially community software, open source allows pretty much anyone with enough programming knowledge to download a software ‘platform’ or foundation, and alter that to create the desired functional result.

So say you wanted a website with a content management system (CMS), ‘secure’ shopping cart and form builder. An open source developer may grab a free WordPress CMS platform, purchase or even just download cheap or free cart and form ‘plugins’, cobble it all together and voila! Your website – or at least its underlying technology – is ready.

But because these pieces are all in open source, the developer is free to get ‘under the hood’ of the software to create specific functionality you have asked for or they have recommended.

The closed proprietary alternative

On the other hand, ‘closed’ source software or technology does not allow ordinary developers to access the development source code in this way. Typically companies create such software and deliberately ‘close’ the source code so that only they can modify it.

This is not just for purely profit motives. Closing the code in this way allows you to control the quality of the software by preventing ‘enthusiasts’ from inadvertently creating faulty or insecure programming code, which of course can compromise the software brand and reputation.

As a result, any issue you have with the software is generally directed back to the company who provided it, sometimes via licensed local developers. As in any manufactured product, warranties and service level agreements cover any fault that might occur to your program.

Packaged, branded technology

The best analogy to this community versus company scenario lies in your standard book-keeping programs. In the very early days of personal computing, you could hire a programmer to develop or ‘write’ a book-keeping program for you. Because ‘off the shelf’ book-keeping systems were still new (and we are talking 25 years ago or more) your only real option was to pay the hourly rate for a programmer or developer to create it for you.

But because computer code can easily be duplicated in much the same way music now can, it made sense for the developer in question to make the software available to others for a price much lower than having to re-create it each time.

So very quickly entrepreneurial developers packaged up their programs and mass produced and marketed them, much like MYOB, Quicken, etc do today.

Whilst you pay an initial and usually ongoing license fee to purchase and use closed software, you also get teams of trained professionals ensuring its upkeep and quality control – particularly in an industry renowned for disgruntled or otherwise meddlesome hackers constantly trying to create havoc.

Famously, this battle of open vs closed was fought out between Microsoft and Apple when it came to the way they licensed their operating systems and software. Microsoft’s ‘open’ approach allowed pretty much anyone with any development nous to incorporate its operating system into its hardware, regardless of its quality, and in so doing allowing the market for it to flourish. And it’s the reason why it held up to 94% of the operating system market at one point.

The core of Apple

On the other hand, for all but a few years Apple completely closed its operating system to outside providers so as to control the complete product in much the same way that many car manufacturers do. Whilst this approach came very close to ensuring its demise at one point, it eventually led to hugely successful vertical integration possibilities as is now being realised by its hardware, operating system, iTunes, app store, etc, products.

Actually, Apple may not have happened at all if co-founder Steve Wozniak had his way. He wanted the original Apple 1 to recoup only the cost of the hardware, add a small profit margin and essentially give away the operating system before Steve Jobs talked him out of it – a decision that took the fledgling business out of the hobbyist market into the consumer market, with revolutionary results.

But coming back to website technology, business operators can now choose from an open source website platform or a closed proprietary one – something that few actually realise or are even alerted to by their web professional.

The cost of freedom

But whilst an open approach may provide developers with all the freedom they need to be able to create pretty much any kind of website, it also creates the potential for a number of problems that closed systems don’t.

These relate to quality, upgrades, maintenance, security, other improvements and the cost of each of these.

But whilst an open approach may provide developers with all the freedom they need to be able to create pretty much any kind of website, it also creates the potential for a number of problems that closed systems don’t.

These relate to quality, upgrades, maintenance, security, other improvements and the cost of each of these.

Unlike a licence with a closed or proprietary provider, there is no obligation on the part of your web developer to ensure that your website platform is kept up to date with all the various ongoing maintenance requirements web technology require. 

So, say browsers such as Internet Explorer or Chrome alter their operational specifications? Your developer must keep up with these (regular) changes and ensure your website meets them; whereas proprietary providers do this regular maintenance as a matter of course – because at some point you have paid for it.

So what has all this background information got to do with you as a smaller business operator? As it now turns out, plenty.

Next week I’ll outline why.

The E Team provides a range of professional, affordable web design and marketing services designed especially for Australia’s smaller business sector. Find out more at www.theeteam.com.au or contact me today.

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Craig Reardon

Craig has been assisting and educating Australian smaller businesses with their marketing and website requirements since 2002 via his business The E Team.

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