Ian Hoar – Passion for Technology – Geeking Out - Technology, Web, Toys, Games, Design, Entertainment, Gadgets, & Geeking Out

Open Source software — love it and do it right

A lot of people are afraid of open source software (OSS). They say things like what about support, what happens if I need help or what happens if this OSS project disappears in the future. I think these fears are unfounded and actually apply more to closed source software. With closed source you invest in a product and are always at the mercy of its development team for fixes and updates. Usually you have no access to the code, and you rely on someone else’s employees and know how. The company regardless of size could stop development of the software at anytime, and if it’s a small company could even disappear all together.

With open source, sure you need know how to get it up and running and in many cases you need to know this for closed source options too, but instead of dumping money into a product you can dump money into your own people and build up knowledge of the application internally. If you have smart developers they will fix your problems, and they will usually be able to do it a lot faster and easier than they could with closed source products. You will have full access to the code, and if something isn’t working the way you intended or doesn’t even exist within the current framework, your developers can fix it or add it. In some cases you may even be able to find an OSS plugin or addon to the product you are using. You will also have access to the OSS community support, which is usually far more helpful and rich than any closed source manual or solution could ever hope to be. Just do a search on any popular OSS project and you will find a mountain of resources at your finger tips. The same cannot be said for closed source.

Having used both open source and closed source, I can definitively say I have seen more time and man hours poured into closed source solutions than I have ever seen put into open source. Of course there is always the possibility of choosing the wrong OSS solution, but this is the other great thing about OSS, if you do find that you have made a mistake, you can scrap it and try something else. Now what happens when you make the same mistake with a closed source solution? It’s usually not even an option to scrap it if you have spent a lot of money on the product, you may just have to deal with it and work with what you have.

To really illustrate the power of OSS I will use a friend’s website Misery Loves Co as an example. He wanted to start up an online store that sells urban clothing and knew very little about programming. He has html and CSS experience and a lot of design experience, but that wouldn’t help him write an ecommerce site.

He did his research and found a free open source e-commerce application called Zen Cart. Instead of spending a lot of time and money on buying and configuring a closed source solution, he used the Zen Cart OSS community, a Zen Cart manual and had the site up and running fairly quickly. He was able to spend the time designing the site he wanted instead of messing around trying to create an e-commerce engine or spending a lot of money on something and hoping it worked the way he wanted.

Another site I worked on using WordPress is the recently launched Pink Tulip Foundation, a site dedicated “to help young girls increase their awareness and knowledge of breast cancer prevention in Ontario”. We needed to build something quickly that allowed editors to create content quickly, so I implemented WordPress as a CMS.

I have used OSS in the past for my own projects and for work, but I still find there can be resistance and fear of OSS. Even I am not immune from this. I like to understand everything I am using from the ground up, but recently I have been finding the web moving so fast that it’s almost impossible to be an expert at everything. This is where OSS can really save you time. Do your research the same as you would when buying software and make sure you find a well established project. Recently I’ve started using jQuery for some of my JavaScript needs, I use WordPress for this blog, and I’ve used the Sphider search engine which I had to completely customize. Drupal is also on the list of upcoming OSS to learn. The list of great software out there is almost endless; you just have to find it.

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