Let’s face it, software is expensive. Accounting programs, word processing, office applications, and design systems – the list of productivity software is endless. Most of these applications cost a pretty penny, and you may not always feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. As soon as you make that investment, it seems like a newer version comes out – and its time to upgrade again!
You may have heard the term “open source software” and wondered what that meant. In a nutshell, open source software is software whose source code – the instructions that make the software work – is free to use and modify. Software developers will take open source code and change it to their liking, then distribute it – often for free. Sometimes developers will offer the software for free, but charge a support fee if you need assistance setting up or using the product. It’s to the developer’s advantage to offer the software for no charge – because one of the caveats for use is that open source code must remain open and available to the public.
Closed source software are applications whose source code is not publicly available. Examples include Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Word. These applications were developed to be sold, and therefore the source code is protected by copyright. If you go to the store and purchase software, or download it for a fee, its likely closed source software.
Open Source Applications
Open source software is available for many applications, such as accounting, payroll, word processing and CRM. One of the most common open source software packages I see is Open Office (http://openoffice.org). This software package contains programs for word processing, spreadsheets, presentation and databases – and is completely free. It’s similar to Microsoft Office, but it does have its differences. For many people, Open Office serves their needs for simple office applications. However if you have to share work with Microsoft Office users, you may be disappointed. Some Microsoft Word and Excel documents may open fine in Open Office, but others may not – and vice versa. Also, certain features and fonts aren’t shared between the two. In a business environment, Microsoft Office is usually the dominant application of choice.
While open source software packages may have certain similarities with their closed source counterparts, the differences can be substantial. The term “the devil is in the details” comes to mind. Some features that are taken for granted may not be available in an open source package, and it’s important to know this before making a change. Usually, researching the web is a good way to see other user’s experiences with an open source software package.
Support is another area of difference. Closed source software usually has professional support available, with a phone number to call and a person to talk to. Open source software might not have that option, and you may be limited to what’s available online or from web forums with other users.
Security with any software package should be reviewed. Open source software is often looked at as more secure for a number of reasons. For one, anyone can review the source code and see if any bugs or security flaws might exist. Also, any flaws discovered can be quickly updated due to the collaborative nature of open source developers. However, the same can be said for closed source software. Software companies have a vested interest in keeping their software secure and up to date, and they usually have the resources on staff to do it.
Like any software package, thorough research should be performed before making a change. Any integration with other systems such as email, CRM and office applications should be reviewed, as well as reviewing support costs and availability. For some, open source software might make sense. For others, staying with trusted brands is the right choice.
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Matt Rice is an Owner and Chief Technology Officer of Burgess Computer, a comprehensive IT support, managed service and network design firm located in Bath serving clients in southern, midcoast and central Maine. www.burgesscomputer.com