The Myth of Open-Source vs. Proprietary


Author: Steve Kiernan II  9/15/11

Stop fearing technology and solutions that are not open-source!  There, I’ve said it.  Why? Read on.

Far too many companies, savvy marketers and salespeople continue to evangelize open-source as the alternative to being taken to the cleaners with a proprietary solution.  Enough already!

There is no doubt that open-source solutions continue to provide more and more commercially viable options, and for some, genuinely present the best solution for a given need.  What I can’t stomach is stretching the truth about a technology solely for the purpose of scaring potential customers into using your product.  Unfortunately, I hear it all the time in my consulting practice when clients tell me “we won’t use a proprietary solution, because we don’t have control over [insert many things here].”

My follow-up question is usually about their use of MS Word, (for example) but the list can go on and on.  For all you MS Word users out there who actually paid money for the software, are you aware that you don’t own it? You own a license to use a specific version, or versions, in perpetuity. However, you have no right whatsoever to change, revise, use in manners other than intended, re-purpose or resell that software, because you don’t own it.  How many of you, now that you know that, are going to stop using it?  I suspect somewhere between none and zero. Why?  Because it’s not really about open-source or propriety at all.

Those who mislead about the virtues of open-source vs. proprietary aren’t always addressing the right issues. Typically, customers are reticent about a solution because of the service or lack thereof that they have received in the past from a service provider. It’s rarely a true technology issue so much as it is a service and expectation management issue. Unfortunately, for companies that use more mainstream corporate technologies (Microsoft .NET, MS Visual Studio and MS SQL Server as examples), there are so many examples of poor service and poor execution of technology that it’s easy to fall victim to the broad brush-stroke that is anti-proprietary.

Recently, I was browsing a web site and read the following:

“We develop sites with code that is universal on an open-source platform. That means when your project is complete, you’ll own every element of your site. We don’t use proprietary code…”

If you’re the average consumer, that may look and sound great.  It may resonate with you because the solution above is “universal” and “you’ll own every element” of what’s produced.  Here’s the problem, from someone who is in the business – it’s marketing speak and full of holes.  Beyond the fact that it’s entirely void of details in terms of process and real technology, it’s as much a policy issue as it is a technology issue.  I know of many web site platforms that are not open-source, but where you own your site 100% no questions asked.  Good service companies stand behind policies that like because they provide good service.  They don’t need to own your intellectual property – that’s nuts!  It’s not a technology issue – it’s a policy and service issue.  By the way, companies who use open-source tools can provide bad service just as easily as companies who don’t use open-source tools.

There are many other myths to address in another post.  The myth of “free” is a favorite of mine, but one that I’ll save for another day.

How not to get burned

Ask questions.  Make sure that a service provider is willing to educate you and your team, work with transparency in terms of process, address your concerns and always answers your questions.  Unless you have a real business need that dictates the use of an open-source technology, be open to other solutions.  In the end, proprietary is not bad or evil, and neither is open-source.  It’s almost never the technology that’s at issue, but the service behind the technology.


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