In recent years, previously unchallenged closed source software providers such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle have noticed an increasingly threatening competitor in the form of Open Source Software. Michael Bloch, who writes a long established and well informed internet blog, describes open source Software as “…free applications released under special licensing terms where the core coding is viewable and able to be edited to suit the needs of the user.” One example of this type of software is MySQL, the most popular open source database in the world and the greatest opponent to closed source suppliers. As with any business tool, open source software has a number of advantages and disadvantages for the businesses that use it.
The most obvious advantage open source software has over its closed source rivals is that the core components of the software are completely free. For providers such as MySQL this makes the product relatively easy to distribute and market. MySQL have identified that the “lower cost advantages of open source” are one of the main forces in attracting customers. As the cost of software can be a major deciding factor, especially for smaller businesses or those that have been newly established, open source providers are more likely to determine a prominent market share through this process. More importantly for businesses, they are able to download and use MySQL and other open source databases without paying any fees.
Excluding the obvious financial gains of free software, one of the other major benefits is that companies do not become tied to one provider. As there is no required financial investment by user businesses in databases such as MySQL, if a software package is considered unsuitable, there is no monetary loss for users in switching to a more appropriate alternative. As a result, this forces MySQL and other providers to continue to develop and update their software to retain existing customers and expand to new users. In doing this, the services they provide to businesses become more proficient.
An approach other than changing database providers that can be taken by businesses is to modify their existing set-up. For MySQL, because the coding for the database is provided, users can create alterations and extensions that are beneficial to their needs. An advantage to this is instead of having to buy another programme for this purpose, companies can save money by altering MySQL. When companies have then modified the programme they are then entitled to redistribute their new version of it. Users are also able to operate all open source software in any way they like. In doing this, along with redistribution, there are advantages for all parties. For MySQL these aspects ensure that their database product is continually distributed on a wider scale eventually leading to more paying customers for other services. For businesses using MySQL, as more users become involved, a larger support network evolves which becomes immensely useful in suggesting further enhancements to improve the database and troubleshooting.
Closed source software usually has to be completed and on the market for a certain date in order to ensure profits are made and targets are reached. Alternately, open source software is generally not released until the development team believes it has been perfected and is ready for use. As the pressures of marketing are not inflicted nearly as heavily on open source software, the finished product is usually developed more slowly and as a result is more adept. This theory is well illustrated by the small amount of demands placed on MySQL in comparison to database competitors Oracle. It is inevitable that for all software, some problems will arise following its initial release. Nonetheless, these problems generally occur far less often with open source software as more time is available during the initial development process. Another effect of this is that programmes such as MySQL usually contain less ‘bugs’ than their closed source competitors.
Although users of open source software often form large support networks, one important disadvantage is the omission by providers to give qualified technical support. For businesses, the main problem with this is that they will most likely be required to pay to have any errors in the software ironed out. In contrast, closed source operators are obligated to provide a technical support service. The difference between the two was noticed by MySQL Chief Executive Officer Marten Mickos following the launch of MySQL’s subscription service in 2005. He commented, “For the first time we have customers complaining…It’s a question of expectations”.
Another issue is that companies wishing to adapt open source software to meet their usage specifications often encounter problems and are forced to employ experts at an expense greater than closed source software would have been initially.
Finally, businesses using open source technology run the risk of the product they are using simply being terminated. Unless the product has been purchased, providers are under no obligation to continue to produce it and users could ultimately be left without any service at all.
Both open and closed source software have their advantages and disadvantages and are suitable for different business needs. For businesses in their early stages, open source software can provide the platform needed to start making profits. Without which often very expensive closed source alternatives would have to be purchased. Those with relevant experience are able to modify all types of open source software into very unique and useful tools. It is this degree of flexibility that so many companies find attractive. However, it is important to also consider the less appealing attributes of open source software. These include costs that may not initially be evident due to support issues and the need for business specifications to be met. There is also the possibility of further problems arising in the future. For these reasons and many others, for any company, the decision of whether to use open or closed source software is not one to be taken lightly.
Witting, C and Burgelman, R. (2006) MySQL Open Source Database in 2006 (B), Stanford Graduate School of Business, Case: SM-124(B)