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The cost of open source

The number of people who believe that they’re getting something for nothing with open source solutions never fails to surprise me. I can hear what people are thinking “he would say that, wouldn’t he”, after all I do run a technology shop which means that I have a vested interest in people paying for software. And, yes. I admit it. I think that value has a price. But I also think the old Milton Friedman adage that runs “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is as true today as it has ever been. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not intrinsically against open source software; we’ve used some ourselves in some projects that we’ve done. What causes me angst is that people think that open source = free, good quality, software. It categorically does not.

It’s not that there isn’t any good open source software out there but in complex computing environments going for open source is, I would argue, at the least lazy and, at worst, reckless. Why lazy? By taking someone else’s cast you are stuck with their mould. You may reason that this is true of commercial software too but in a commercial software scenario you have the power as a client to influence what the software provider provides. With an open source solution you are looked into what one or more techies thought was a good idea when they created it, which, in some cases, may be some years ago. Technology moves but rapidly.

Hang on, I also said it could be reckless, did I not? And I meant it. If you decide to take on open source software you’d better be clear on who you go to for redress if there is a serious bug in the code. Commercial software houses such as Rapid Addition (plug over) should have insurance against such events occurring so, if it all goes pear-shaped you can sue them for the damage to your systems. Often, with open source there is no clear ownership defined. That means no clear liability. What tickles me though is that when people realise that they employ a programmer (and often more than one), either fulltime or contract, to ensure that the code both conforms to their application needs and can be considered fit for purpose. The programmer is on to a good thing as they earn a decent wage. But then, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of getting your software free in the first place?


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