The value of open source

In 2006, I co-founded Four Kitchens, a web design and development consultancy that specializes in working with open-source software. As an open-source business, we are frequently asked about the benefits of open source. The way I explain it to most people is like this: The open-source business model is service-driven, and the closed-source model is product-driven.

In an open-source model, your startup costs are zero and you need to expend capital -- your time, your company’s development cycles and your money to hire outside vendors, etc. -- to get the software to do what you need. In a closed-source model, your startup costs are usually quite high because you must purchase licenses, subscriptions and proprietary hardware, but the software more or less works out of the box. In the long run, I believe the open-source model is cheaper for two reasons:

  1. Closed-source models often encourage proprietary certifications for developers and subscription fees to access "developer networks" -- glorified reference materials and API documentation -- both of which can be prohibitively expensive for an individual. Since these certifications and network subscriptions provide a barrier of entry both in terms of cost and effort, the pool of allegedly qualified developers shrinks. Supply-and-demand economics tells us that a smaller supply of qualified developers will result in higher wages and consulting rates, which are ultimately borne by the employer who pays them.
  2. The closed-source model awards software that traps its customers. While some customers stay with a product because they like it, others have no choice but to renew their license or buy upgrades because they can’t afford to switch to something else. The process of switching from one product to another is usually time-consuming and expensive because closed-source software is under no obligation to provide any kind of documentation or API that would assist customers in switching to a competing platform. Popular open-source software owes its success to the quality and transparency of its documentation, APIs and code, which are precisely the tools that make a migration path easy to navigate.

The Value Is In The Service

Those who don’t understand the open-source business model often wonder, "Why would I pay someone to do something I can figure out myself?" The answer is, simply enough, because most people don’t have the time or inclination to do so. Plumbing, for example, isn’t particularly difficult, but very few people handle it personally. How many of us fix our own leaky toilets or dripping faucets? We don’t want to and we can pay someone else to do it for us. The same goes for open-source software: The service we provide is one most clients are not willing or able to do on their own.

What really perplexes some is how open-source events and conferences are packed with people giving away their secrets for free. Surely, they think, these people are shooting themselves in the foot by training everyone in the room to do their jobs. However, the opposite happens: The audience realizes how smart and clever the speaker is, and instead of implementing what they’ve learned, many hire that speaker to do exactly what she just explained because they’re too busy to do it themselves.

There are many technologies that prove this ecosystem works. Drupal, a popular open-source content management system (CMS), is a great example. Drupal’s community is a strong super team of 30,000+ brilliant designers and developers, all giving away knowledge for free and receiving work in return.

The economics of open source enables a lot of businesses to grow and innovate, ours included. The meritocratic nature of open-source communities allows service providers to quickly develop a strong reputation and sales pipeline by embracing open-source tools and becoming active in their respective communities by contributing their code and expertise. Organizations that implement open-source technologies can rapidly develop products while minimizing startup costs.

Photo Credit: s_bukley/Shutterstock

Todd Ross Nienkerk is a Digital Strategist and Partner at Austin, Texas-based Four Kitchens, an open-source web design and development consultancy.

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