Free and open source software is good for a small business

Small organisations and businesses often lack the size and expertise to develop software to satisfy their needs. They are left to purchase proprietary software with supplier lock in, and pay the single supplier for customisation (if available) as they have no rights to do it. FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) provides an alternative with ready developed software that by its licensing is not tied to a single supplier or restricted in modification rights.

Many years ago computer systems and application software became essential to business and organisations to achieve their goals. It is also true that no modern businesses is static. They are always growing and changing and whenever an organisation looks to use a software solution for a business process they are faced with an inevitable decision: buy or build. Purchasing an off the shelf product and fitting it to their needs or developing a custom solution, either in house or with a third party. And from this a large industry has grown to satisfy these needs selling software and software development services.

Buy or Build

An organisation which purchases an off the shelf product has the rights to install and use it, subject to any number of restrictions like user numbers, number of processors, length of time etc. However it is purchased almost exclusively without the right for the purchaser to modify (or view) the underlying source code of product to better suit their needs. Any defects discovered can only be corrected by the vendor and user requested enhancements are at the vendors discretion. In essence they have purchased a right to use the software as is, but not real ownership as they may have suspected.

For users this lack of rights may not be a problem as the software functions as they require and they have no need to modify underlying code. Where they can run into later difficulties is with the supplier making their software product obsolete, or through merger or vendor failure support of the software ceases. If the user does not wish to follow a forced upgrade path or face no vendor support they have the problem to migrate to another product. Firstly will be the need to retrain staff and modify processes for a new product. Secondly if their data is held in a proprietary format, data migration (if possible) could well be expensive and time consuming as they have no rights to view the original code and understand the storage format.

In the case of an organisation building their own system, large organisations may be in a position to create a custom solution, but most smaller organisations lack the size or technical know how to make a from scratch solution viable. Therefore it becomes a one sided decision in favour of the proprietary solution for small organisations.

The FOSS Alternative

FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) provides an alternative and can make buy or build a relevant question even for a small organisation. Unless the organisation is trying to do something extremely unique, it is likely someone else has had a similar need, and the solution has been made publicly available at minimal (or zero) distribution cost, to be used, modified and shared by many users. If the product is mature and well used it may be that little or no modifications are required by an end user to get the software into active use. Compare this with the risk of building a medium to large software application from scratch.

An organisation using FOSS is making a commercial decision just like purchasing a shrink wrapped off the shelf product. However, instead of paying upfront and ongoing fees to a particular vendor for the right to use the software without modification rights, FOSS is based on a fee for service model without single vendor lock in. This means there is generally no upfront purchase price, and if the end user wishes to have the software modified they can do it themselves or pay another organisation to do this modification. The freedom to choose is with them. The same is true for ongoing support. Internal resources can be used or external parties can be contracted. The advantage is that the software they use cannot be orphaned by a vendor ceasing to exist or no longer supporting their software. A single vendor also no longer has monopoly power over the software user.

Also under FOSS, a small organisation that may struggle to get the attention of large software companies, can choose to deal with other small companies and receive the personalised attention they require. A number of small organisations also have the ability to pool and share their limited resources to achieve their outcomes.

Depending on the particular FOSS license, modifications can be released back into the public. In this way improvements and modifications can be shared leading to better software. This modification and release process means fixes for any software problems are released quickly and are not dependent on a vendor schedule.