The open source delusion - Wake up!

It's about reducing marketing cost

Having dismissed the bearded, student-driven movement that comprises the majority of open source, we're left with some serious software pushed by some serious players. And here we need to understand that open source is not about benevolence, it's about reducing the cost of marketing.

The marginal cost of downloading software over the web is pretty much nil. The cost of getting the word out about new software is much greater. So it's hugely cheaper if you can get mates to tell each other about your great free software. If this is also backed up by some open source purists who repeat the myths, even better. With careful management, your user base will then translate and localise your software for every country in the world and you'll own the rights. Wonderful!

Not so altruistic

I know of one company that employed nearly 60 developers in Eastern Europe to produce its shiny new open source application. It built up the buzz, prior to a big launch. The result was huge excitement and conferences organised all around the world by their users. Translations were quickly made and huge success resulted. It was an open source home run.

Within two years, the company brought out a higher end paid version of the same product and development focused on this. When I was having a coffee at the back of Waterloo station with the CEO, he told me this had always been the plan. The naive among his user base howled with rage but nothing changed. Since then the company has been sold to eBay and the founders have pocketed tens of millions of dollars. There's nothing wrong in that, but it was hardly driven by altruism.

Of course, I work for a software vendor, so I am biased. Open source has its place alongside traditional, purchased software and new software-as-a-service solutions like those from my company, Sellerdeck. These are all viable models and all can be chosen in the right circumstances. But it's important to remember that open source has many of the same costs as the others including infrastructure, installation, support, training, data migration and interfacing. In most cases the actual software is free. But that sometimes comes with additional risks.

Journalists need to wake up

Open source is often presented as a panacea for all software ills... it isn't. I just wish that some journalists would wake up to this fact. They've been suckered by the open source myths for too long and they need to bring the same cynicism to this subject that they rightly do to many others. The result would be more balanced reporting.

Written by Chris Barling, is CEO of E-Commerce specialist, Sellerdeck. Originally published on BusinessZone.

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