When we think of open source vs. proprietary software, examples such as Firefox vs. Chrome or Linux vs. Windows come to mind.
But many people don’t know what open source software really means. There are misconceptions such as all free software = open source, or open source always means better. But that’s not the case and as with anything, both have their pros and cons. Let’s discuss those below.
Definition of open source software.
Essentially, open source software means that the source code for a software is open to public. Anybody has access to that code and thus, anybody can edit the code and customize it as per their liking.
We’ll take WordPress as an example. WordPress is working on a new release. Now the WordPress source code is out available for anyone to edit. So, anybody who wishes to contribute to WordPress may edit the code and send it back to WordPress. Now in real life the procedure is a bit more enforced, but those are the basics.
Open source software mostly is free, however there are some cases where it’s paid.
Definition of proprietary software (aka closed source)
Proprietary (also known as closed source) software is basically copyrighted software that belongs to a certain company, e.g. Microsoft’s Windows.
Proprietary software comes both paid and free (Microsoft Windows and Google Chrome, among many others come to mind).
Proprietary software is locked and not available to public, and development takes place in-house. Take note, however, that certain companies do invite outside developers to aid in debugging and adding new features but that doesn’t classify as an open source project. For example, Microsoft is working on the next major release of Windows 10: The Creators Update. The Windows 10 Creators Update is now feature complete and Microsoft is focussing on the bug fixing side of things and practical details. So, Microsoft is recruiting Windows Insiders who are also developers to aid in bug fixes. That way, Microsoft can fix more bugs in a much shorter period.
Another example of this is Microsoft’s Windows Insider program. Anybody who wishes to may join the Windows Insider program and test the latest preview builds. Microsoft then takes feedback from the community and uses it to enhance their product. This also doesn’t make Windows an open source project, Microsoft is merely keeping costs low by not having to hire so many developers and product testers, etc.
Pros of open source software
In a nutshell:
- Community has the power in their hands.
- Anybody can tailor the software per their specific needs.
- Most of the time free, although not always.
Giving the community power is a great thing for one: the company does not get to boss around. The community develops the software for the community, and the software’s strength is the community. But beware, giving the community power can also have negative effects, more on that below.
Also, anybody can tailor the software to their specific needs without having to hire expensive developers or paying the company to do changes.
Finally, price. Not all open source software is free – there are some cases where it’s paid. But not everybody can afford to spend $100 on Windows. Having an entire OS that’s free is a great thing, especially if your type of work doesn’t need the features that Windows has.
Cons of open source software
As many pros open source software may have, they have a few cons as well.
To start with, as mentioned above, having your entire software depend on the community can have massive drawbacks. Here’s why:
As with anything, new projects will begin with much received hype and many volunteers. As the project ages, the hype slowly decreases and the number of volunteers decrease. Eventually, you end up with only 2 volunteers and eventually your project is lacking funds and people who volunteer. Unless your project launched with a giant bang (and you have a huge financial muscle, in which case you won’t have any troubles anyway,) you’ll have a hard time recruiting new volunteers. Because frankly, majority of open source software is free, and why would anyone spend a lot time and financial energy in something that doesn’t give anything back to them? 10 to 1 people just aren’t plain interested – or in some cases, just don’t have the time.
Another con is that because volunteers and members from the community run open source software, security loopholes take long to get fixes released. Also, bug fixes take a longer time to release and likewise with new features.
But the biggest deal breaker for me is customer support and documentation. Most of the time open source software have poorly written documentation and customer support that sometimes is the bane of your existence (not always, and often proprietary software has customer support no different)
So, while open source software may have fewer cons than pros, the cons themselves outweigh the pros and these are the reasons I tend to shy away from open source software.
Now don’t get me wrong, not all open source software is such. There are some excellently managed projects out there but some smaller projects suffer from these issues.
Pros of proprietary software
Now this may come as a surprise to some, but software being paid is a very major pro. For one: you paid for something, so expect to get support and regular fixes.
Let’s take Windows as an example. Microsoft has developers and security experts working around the clock checking for bugs and vulnerabilities and releasing fixes as soon as possible. If they experience a downtime on one of their servers which affect Windows directly (such as Cortana, OneDrive, Bing, etc.) they fix it immediately. Likewise, with security. Microsoft has a fully-fledged security lab, working to find, and fix new issues and enhancing their services such as Windows Defender.
Then it comes to adding new features. Microsoft is busy releasing new features all the time, features that make life easier while some not (I’m looking at you, Windows 8 start screen). But jokes aside, development is constantly going on and new features are coming out, as opposed to open source which tends to release new features rather slowly, if at all.
But the main thing that makes me prefer proprietary software is: you know you’re getting software from an established firm. If it’s an established and reputable firm, you know they are serious. While of course there are many reputable open source software such as WordPress, Mozilla, Ubuntu, etc., other open source software sometimes are, well, dodgy. Not to mention customer support which most of the time is very helpful (let us forget the olden days of Vista, okay, and let us look back to the time where Apple hadn’t contracted donglitis and rated number 1 in customer support and satisfaction.) compared to open source software customer support (mentioned above).
Cons of proprietary software
Again, as many pros as proprietary software may have, there are a few cons.
The only major con is price. Often the software company charges too much for software if they have a monopoly, and if you want modifications done, they charge too much or if they have a monopoly they don’t even bother.
Then we have customer support. Most of the time it’s reasonable (spending 15 minutes on hold with customer support is acceptable in today’s world) and often it’s horrible. But you should be just fine with most of the support offered nowadays.
So, to conclude, do I prefer open source software over proprietary software?
It depends. If I’m getting the same thing in both proprietary and open source versions with the same number of features and the proprietary software is backed by a reputable brand, I’d go for the proprietary version.
I would prefer Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge over Mozilla Firefox.
If I’m getting the same thing in both proprietary and open source versions but the proprietary software charges an insanely huge amount, then I’d go for the open source.
For something like Linux over Windows, I’d look at my use case and budget. If I need something just for basic browsing and emails and I don’t have a $100 to spend, I’d go for Ubuntu. If I need something just for basic browsing and emails and I HAVE a $100 to spend, I’d go for Windows. Why? Future proofing. Windows is backed by Microsoft and is here to stay, for one. Second, going down the line I might need to do work which Linux doesn’t support (such as gaming, video, or photo editing with Adobe suite, etc.) so I know I won’t need to shell out a $100 THEN.
My personal statement is that while open source is a great initiative, I prefer proprietary software for the above-mentioned reasons.
Did I miss anything?
Which do you prefer?
What are your reasons?