Open Source Means Choice Of Insurance

No, using open source doesn’t automatically mean going it alone.

Small Fish

Some say that companies don’t want open source because they want the security of a relationship with a big business. But this outlook reflects misunderstandings of the real values of open source. It’s yet another consequence of the “price frame”. 

There is an overall price-related message-frame that proprietary software companies like to use around open source. In each instance, an idea completes the phrase “open source may come with free licenses but…” in creatively manipulative ways. In many cases, the resulting statement conceals a weakness of proprietary software by casting it as a weakness of open source.

In the case of software investment protection, the phrase gets completed “… but you need a proprietary vendor for long-term investment protection”. That’s a deceptive statement that embodies an incorrect view of open source as a “knock-off copy”. The open source model – done well – offers more security than the proprietary model.

It’s a powerful and persistent myth because it builds on at least two misconceptions:

No need to walk alone

It may reflect a belief that using open source software means you’re on your own, and that “open source” is the antonym for “supported”. But that’s not true. While you have the liberty to use open source software any way you want without needing to ask permission or buy the “right to use”, all significant enterprise open source software has companies ready and able to provide all the same protections as are available with proprietary software.

It’s just unbundled, giving you the flexibility to decide who you buy from, how much you pay and how long to continue. Of course, that’s incredibly threatening to proprietary vendors who want to lock you in to their product. They would rather you believed that optional service and support means no service and support.

It also means you can proceed without any form of support or assurance if you want to. Just check that’s not hubris before you do, and don’t blame the community whose software you’re using if you get caught out – open source is a collaboration, not a product.

Small Can Be Beautiful

It may reflect a belief that using open source means trading with small companies, and that trading with large companies is safer. That’s partly true. Building a multinational software corporation may be impossible without proprietary lock-in.

The first part has a positive dimension; having a choice of supplier gives you more control of your negotiations. But the second part – that large companies are safer – is not necessarily so. In today’s economy, even large companies can fail or be acquired. Companies can change strategy after getting a new CEO or making a large acquisition. If you’re dependent on proprietary software, the size of your supplier will be little help when this kind of change happens.

But with open source software, the flexibility to use, study, modify and distribute the software without further permission means any community member can take over the lead. As long as the business opportunity exists, someone will be there to “rehost and carry on“.

It may once have been the case that “no-one got fired for buying $large-vendor”, but today’s economy means the flexibility that open source permits – and which is taken away from you by proprietary vendors – is more important than ever. If you hear this investment protection meme, it’s worth asking why it’s still believed so strongly and why a choice of where to buy insurance for your software is bad.

(An earlier version of this article was published by ComputerWorldUK in 2011. This version comes courtesy of Patreon patrons)