OPEN-SOURCE FOR THE SMALL BUSINESS

As I work with my clients, I regularly suggest the use of an open-source application (where it’s relevant, of course), to replace a commercial app which is not working to the client’s liking, which is too expensive, or as a solution to the client not having licenses for the number of copies installed around the office.

The responses I get are mixed. For boutique professionals where there are less than 10 folks in the office, a lot of them have jumped in with both feet. While there are always hurdles and bumps in any change in infrastructure, I think the super-duper-small businesses are much more dynamic in this respect. Most of them are cash-strapped, and anything that can minimize their costs, both present and future they look at with great hope and interest. They also have a smaller ship to steer, and can handle more drastic change than a business with a larger infrastructure.

Since most commercial applications that are sold to “most businesses” must then appeal to an enormously wide range of needs and interests in order to maximize their profitability, small businesses are often forced to pay exorbitant sums for features they have no need for, or interest in. In the case of Microsoft Office, the big pull is support and compatibility with other colleagues. Also, the more employees you have, the more people you have who might not transition well to a new application, free software or not, regardless of it’s benefits. And it is this uncertainty, I think, is where bigger businesses get a bit more nervous about making what might seem like drastic changes, especially if you happen to be a manager of sorts whose future in the company could be made vulnerable by an unsuccessful deployment.

But I often wonder, how real are these fears? Obviously a failed deployment is a disaster, however you slice it. But there seems to be a credibility lent to the big players that the scrappier development teams don’t get. There are plenty of failed Office/Exchange/Sharepoint/.NET (all are Microsoft servers which provide some level web and MS Office integration, for the non-back-office IT geeks out there) roll-outs in the wild, and while the person in charge there did not likely get a pat on the back for whatever issues sank the ship, people don’t get deterred from making similar attempts in the same way that an unsuccessful trial of OpenOffice.org will get totally hammered and cause the very competent, free suite to get made a pariah, or deemed “unready for prime-time.”

I certainly wouldn’t disagree that OpenOffice.org is ready for use in many larger businesses, I think it can also be said that the value that people often point to for more “traditional” or “ industry-standard” applications is not always there. And often the aspects of those types of applications that people most point to, file-format compatibility being the most common, are often not because the application in question is superior, but because the owning corporation has a crushing grip on the market and won’t share knowledge of their file formats. While it is certainly the right of a company to protect valuable assets, what it does to the market as a whole is devastating.

In the end, all companies in the affected fields learn that in order to survive, you have to create a proprietary format and corner the market as fast as possible so that your company and shareholders can live in a walled garden for as long as people will keep paying monopoly prices, or until a competitor is able to sneak in somehow and shake up the industry.

It is this pattern continually repeating itself that makes me scratch my head when companies willfully allow themselves to be extorted when there are already very suitable, and in some cases superior open-source applications available for use. I will state now that I realize that most people making said decision will not see their own options in this light, but I am trying to punctuate that there seems to be an almost addictive pattern towards selecting commercial applications that have not fundamentally changed in years, over newer development models that are free, collaborative, and are constantly being advanced.


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