To Open Source or Not to Open Source… September 20, 2017

By Kristen Hoover

The concept of the open source movement has been around in some fashion for many years, but with respect to software it was coined and began gaining momentum in the 1990s. Since then, it has evolved and grown in popularity to the extent that even major tech companies like Microsoft incorporate open source software into their software development model. Open source has also paved the way for tools such as Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company that gathers and disseminates information in both natural and man-made disaster zones. But what does open source mean for your business?

Whether you’re a business considering incorporating open source software or developing software and considering making it open source, there are a multitude of factors to consider. The most pressing for most, if not all, companies is cost. The obvious appeal of open source software is the low or non-existent license fees. Traditional proprietary software has costly license fees attached and usually a limitation on the number of installs a purchaser is allowed, whereas with open source software there may be a minimal fee, if any, and the user is not typically restricted in number of installs.

The flipside of low license fees is that usually this increases the cost of other issues down the line. The costs associated with implementation, administration and support can quickly increase and surpass initial estimates. One of the things you’re paying for with the license fees in proprietary software is the tech support when something goes wrong or isn’t working properly. Therefore, while you may save initially, there are potential costs down the road.

This double-edge sword applies to improvements of the software as well. One of the biggest benefits of open source software is the continuous real-time improvement because everyone has access to the software and therefore it has a large community of software engineers which contribute to the project. This allows the speed of innovation to be far faster for open source software than proprietary software. However, troubleshooting with open source software is heavily reliant on advice from forums, where no one is obligated to answer your questions or help in any way. Additionally, you run the risk of ending up with orphaned software (i.e. projects that slow or halt altogether because programmers stop developing, quit, or lose interest and move on to a new project).

Those in the business of developing software have to weigh the pros and cons of open source as well. If you’re interested in keeping your own software proprietary, it’s important to consider what your programmers are using to develop that software. Are you using an independent contractor? Have you specified that they are not to use open source software in developing your product? This could be important for you down the line. Or maybe you’re considering making your software open source. That doesn’t mean there aren’t revenue streams for your business if you do. Open source software is not license free and some of the most popular license arrangements require payment for downstream commercial use.

At the end of the day, there is no single answer without qualifications to say which is the best software development model for your organization to adopt. The best course is always to consult with an expert. Before making any big decisions, talk to an intellectual property attorney who can help you determine what the best options and legal consequences are for your company.

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