Top 5 Reasons Small Business Owners Don’t Use Open Source Solutions

12 January 2020

Small business operating budgets are often understandably slim, and one of the larger expenses, especially when taken in the aggregate, will often be in the area of software and software services.

Take a moment and add up what your business spends on website hosting, software licenses (Microsoft Windows or MacOS for each PC, Microsoft Office, Anti-Virus, etc.), software services (Adobe Creative Suite, CRM software such as Zoho or Salesforce, LastPass, etc.), and similar software and software services.

You might be surprised at how quickly all of this adds up. You might not even know what you’re spending; it’s easy to sign up for something and forget about that $9.99 per monthly fee. Many businesses / services count on you forgetting about it.

For many of these costs, there are free and open source solutions (FOSS) that don’t eat away at that ever-dwindling operating budget. Why, then, don’t many small businesses save that money and choose FOSS solutions?

Let’s take a look at a few reasons.

#1 - Lack of Awareness

How much money do you think Microsoft spent in FY 2018 on sales and marketing? They spent more than the GDP of 92 countries on the planet: $17 billion. That’s $17 billion dollars to makesure you are aware of their products and services. Salesforce spent nearly half of that.

Big tech companies naturally invest a substantial percentage of their revenue in advertising, whereas most open source projects have little to no advertising budget, at least compared to the billions spent by the larger solution providers.

#2 - Perceived Value

“You get what you pay for” is a dictum many of us are taught from the very beginning and, quite often, it’s true. However, how many times has the reverse been true for you, personally? Do you always feel like you get an equitable amount of value for what you pay when you review all of the software and software services you’re using?

How can software possibly be very good if it’s free, yet you have to pay for these other solutions? It’s a reasonable question, yet many business owners simply move on to one of the closed source, proprietary solutions without looking any further based on this question alone.

When I hear this question from business owners I work with, I like to remind them that Linux:

  • Powers 100% of the world’s super computers
  • Powers 23 of the top 25 websites on the Internet
  • Powers over 96% of the Internet’s top 1 million websites
  • Powers 85% of all smartphones (via Android)

Linux costs $0.00. It’s free, as in free speech. You can also get it for free, as in free beer.

WordPress, used to create websites, is used by nearly 30% of all websites on the Internet. Also free. Also open source.

#3 - Support

One major misconception many have about free and open source software is that there is no support available. It seems like a far safer option to choose a closed source option which generally comes bundled with the promise of some sort of vendor support.

The truth is, with closed source, proprietary solutions many people are paying to have fewer options and less freedom when it comes to support. Don’t like the support options provided by the vendor? Too bad, you’re stuck. Support contract is too expensive? You’re out of luck.

Imagine if you bought a car where the manufacturer had locked the hood down and only they had access to the engine. Only a handful of their mechanics on the entire planet were granted access to the engine, and you get to pay an extra $10k for the privilege of having that kind of support model.

Wouldn’t you agree that the fact you can take your car to nearly any mechanic and have them pop open the hood to diagnose and fix issues is a far better model? That’s more akin to free and open source software.

There are companies whose business model is providing support for open source software (hey, OS|TECH!), and the market, through competition and supply / demand, gets to decide the pricing as opposed to a single vendor. Not to mention the countless freelancers / contractors, project communities, etc. who make their services available for supporting FOSS. You get options with free and open source software, and options are nice.

#4 - Security

The concern that FOSS must be less secure because it’s free kind of ties into the Perceived Value reason with a few differences. Namely, some think that because the source code of a piece of software is visible to anyone and everyone it must be less secure.

Well, the fact the source code is visible to anyone is precisely what helps make it more secure than proprietary, closed source solutions. The fact that sometimes thousands of engineers are looking at an application’s code-base means that the chances are higher that a security vulnerability will be found, and fixed, in a timely fashion.

Contrast that with the numerous security vulnerabilities found in closed source applications like Microsoft Windows. Granted, Microsoft has many, many engineers working on the code for Windows, however it pales in comparison to the number of engineers who have access to the Linux kernel source code.

Besides application vulnerabilities when it comes to security, do you really know what a vendor may have put in their closed source software that you’re using? Is it spying on you? Does it contain malware? Is it collecting your data and selling it to the highest bidder, which might be your competitor? It might be doing any number of things, and you’re paying for the privilege.

These concerns are irrelevant with open source software.

#5 - Complexity

The fear that free and open source software is just too complicated to install, setup, deploy, etc. is one that I hear quite often.

The reality is, this was largely truer in the earlier days of many popular free and open source solutions than it is today. Additionally, the fact that the open source communities have grown significantly and, as a result, the number of experienced software engineers along with it, we have FOSS solutions that are far easier to install, configure, deploy, and maintain than ever before. I have seen solutions that are just as easy to get up and running, and to use, as their commercial counterparts.

Take Open Source for a Test Drive

Adopting free and open source solutions does not, and often shouldn’t be, an ‘all or nothing’ affair. Choose an area of your business with low complexity and don’t give up your existing commercial solution right away.

I often have clients start out with LibreOffice and use it in parallel to Microsoft Office. Give it 60 days to get familiar with it, and only when you feel comfortable enough that the time has come to ditch that Office 365 license should you take the plunge and use LibreOffice as your daily driver.