Open Source Software - addressing the downsides

By Martyn Shiner | September 20, 2020

In a recent tweet @SiriusOpen tweeted a link to an article on Open Source for the SME - Pros and cons of using open source software in your business.

@JeroenBaten replied to the tweet…. “Wait, what are the cons?” so I thought I’d take a closer look.

The article is a straightforward guide to using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for the SME owner/manager with some good background information and a list of positive benefits that small businesses might accrue from adopting open source software.

However, when we get to the negatives, off the bat the article goes with “Along with the potentially overwhelming abundance of choice”…. what? Choice is a negative? I thought more choice is inherently ‘good thing’.

The ‘Cons’

So lets take a look at the author’s view of the downsides to using Open Source in an SME, taking the points raised in order:

Difficult to use: some open source software may be more complicated to set up and start using. A lack of user-friendly interfaces or features may make them difficult for your staff to use efficiently, which could have a direct negative impact on productivity

In 2020 I’m not sure this applies - Ubuntu, Linux Mint etc all focus on desktop usability without having to go near the command line. For sure the interface is ‘different’ from Windows, but the days when our users were flummoxed by anything other than the Windows desktop are long gone - many of them switch between a Mac or iPad at home, an Android or iPhone in their pocket and Windows 10 at work. If you swap the latter for an Ubuntu based desktop environment then nothing much changes, especially if most of the software in use is browser based. If this IS a big issue with users, then there are desktop ‘skins’ that mimic the Windows 10 interface quite closely to ease the pain of transition.

Lack of liabilities and warranties: open source software usually contains limited warranty and no liability or infringement indemnity protection

Really? Most proprietary software has a click through licence, which nobody reads, that expressly limits warranty and liability to VERY tightly defined circumstances. And does any SME have the resources to take on Microsoft (or any other proprietary vendor) for a breach of the licence agreement anyway.

Difficult to get high-end commercial support in a timely manner, you may find yourself stuck and have to rely on the open source community to find a solution to a problem, which could cost you time

I suspect that our friends @SiriusOpen would disagree with the core contention above - i.e. that support for Open Source Software is difficult to obtain. High-end commercial support, especially for proprietary applications, costs a lot of money….. and in our experience most SMEs don’t bother. In addition the idea that a hybrid support model, with community support somewhere in the mix, is a bad thing is not something that should be a problem for an SME contemplating an open source based IT system.

Formats may be less acceptable: proprietary formats, such as Microsoft Word’s ‘.docx’ format, are so common other formats may be less acceptable for regular business use.

OK - well docx is ubiquitous of course, as is xlsx. I would contend, however, that this point is massively over stated….. unless editing documents from other (large) organisations is a day-to-day requirement, then this is a minor issue for most SMEs.

If inter-organisation document sharing is required then using PDFs (the clue is in the name… the “P” stands for “Portable”) means that documents shared by outside contacts, such as suppliers and customers, are easily readable with open source applications. There is also a security dimension to this since editable ‘Office’ documents in popular formats can carry a virus payload, especially where they have embedded macros.

Compatibility with a particular proprietary format may be limited to core features, rather than being 100% compatible which may lead to compromises you aren’t willing to make.

A subtly different point to #4 and certainly a very valid issue to explore.

In the case of Office applications, if inter-orgainsational file sharing is not an issue compatibility problems are much reduced. Most SMEs, in our experience, use a fraction of the features of, say, Word or Excel. Given that this is the case, then the chances are that the proprietary feature required for a particular workflow IS available, albeit implemented slightly differently, in the open source alternative. That being said, even if an SME commits to open source there will be some tasks that require a proprietary approach - one such that springs to mind is CAD (see below for the Severn Delta experience).

Hidden costs: the software may be free to set up but could cost money to run later, especially as you become more reliant on the software and your business needs expand

Is this not true for proprietary software where ‘lock-in’ is a common problem?

In fact, I’d argue that proprietary software, with its per user licensing model, means that costs go up in direct proportion with increasing ‘seat count’ meaning cost increases are essentially baked in. There are further issues concerning data ownership, and the creation of silos of information, that can have serious consequences for the SME as they grow. Open source software doesn’t work this way, with support tending to be tiered and application usage not related to seat count. Data is usually stored in openly documented formats and available to the user directly, rather than being locked away in a format that only the software vendor can access.

A short example

One of our clients, Severn Delta Limited, has been successfully using open source software for 17 years on the server and at least 12 on desktop. They now run all of their shop floor and office systems that way and have a robust work from home strategy - all with Open Source software at the core of their IT strategy.

There have obviously been bumps in the road and instances where proprietary solutions are the only game in town. One such thorny issue was the availability of CAD software for their engineering team. With no viable and acceptable Open Source CAD solution the engineering team run workstations with access to CAD via a Virtual Machine (VM setup). This gives the team members access to a licensed proprietary application that is essential for their workflow, while also allowing them to use the same systems for basic, everyday tasks as all of their co-workers.

Closing thoughts

If you read the original article and were worried that Open Source software was not for you because of the potential pitfalls outlined, then hopefully the above explanations will have helped your decision making process.

In our experience making a move to using Open Source Software can have significant, positive benefits for an SME. These are not always about cost and can assist in defining which workflows need a desktop app, where browser based ‘cloud’ services are relevant and the extent to which critical data is open and shareable across the organisation to improve performance.

And finally…. if you want to know more about how we can help you improve your business through better systems and improved information then do please get in touch via the Contacts Page.