We look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of using open source software
Open source software is software for which the source code – the lines of the program as written by the programmers – is freely available. That means anyone can use the source code to run the software and anyone can modify it by adding features. And anyone who makes changes can share their improvements with other users of the software.
When people talk about free open source software, the ‘free’ refers to the fact that the source code is freely available, not that it is free of charge. Nonetheless, most open source software is available free of charge. But some open source software companies offer subscriptions that provide access to timely updates and security fixes, as well as support.
The open source model contrasts the proprietary software model used by well-known software vendors, such as Microsoft. Before using a product like Microsoft Office, you have to pay a licence fee or subscription, but the source code is strictly guarded by the vendor so if you want new features added you are reliant on the vendor introducing them.
Open source software is often more cost-efficient and can offer better forms of customisation. There are, however, some drawbacks. In this article, we consider some of the advantages and disadvantages of using open source alternatives.
One of the major benefits to a charity of open source software is undoubtedly the fact that it may cost little or nothing to acquire and use it. This can be particularly attractive for charities when it comes to fairly straightforward software such as an office productivity suite which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and perhaps an email client.
But charities wanting to use more complex open source software, such as a constituent relationship manager (CRM) package, may have to pay a consultant to help install and configure the package, so adopting it will not necessarily involve zero cost.
Proprietary software vendors provide support for their products, either as part of the licence fee or through support packages. But if a charity downloads and starts to use an open source software package, support won’t be available in the same way.
The good news is that informal support is often available free from the open source software’s developer community – the people who contribute modifications and improvements to the software, as well as the people who started the project in the first place.
For more popular or complex open source software projects, support is frequently offered on a formal commercial basis either by the original developers or by third-party companies that specialise in providing software support. This may be on a subscription or pay-as you-use basis.
“The way to think about it is that support is unbundled (from the software) but widely available,” says Simon Phipps, former president of the Open Source Initiative. “That means that instead of having to get support from a proprietary vendor at a fixed price, a number of different support suppliers may compete for your business on quality and on price.”
One more benefit of open source software is that it is customisable. Rather than buying proprietary software that may meet most of your needs, your charity can get open source software to use as a starting point, and then pay a developer to add specific features that you want.
The end result is that you may pay just as much for the open source software as you would have for proprietary software, but you end up with a program that is customised to your charity’s needs.
Customisations can then be contributed back to the community, so that other charities can benefit from your customisations in the future – and you can benefit from any of theirs that you find useful.
One common disadvantage of open source software is that its developers often lack the resources to pay attention to the aesthetics of the software in the same way that proprietary software vendors do. That means that some – but by no means all – open source software looks less attractive than proprietary counterparts and may not be as easy to use.
Another potential disadvantage is that if the people who are the driving force behind an open source software project decide to abandon it, development may grind to a halt.
This is unlikely with large or established open source projects which have many contributors, but it is a real danger with small or new projects that may have only a single developer working on them. Since the source code is freely available, however, there is nothing to stop a charity hiring a developer to continue the project.
Office productivity suites
Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office: Both of these suites are excellent and completely free alternatives to Microsoft Office, and the files they produce are compatible with Office, so Microsoft users can use files created in OpenOffice or LibreOffice and vice versa. They look attractive and anyone familiar with Office will be able to use them straight away.
Mailing list software
Mail for Good: Email campaign management software with html templates, analytics dashboards, list importing and exporting, and email open tracking. A good alternative to MailChimp for larger charities.
MyCollab: Basic project management features, suitable for smaller charities.
OpenProject: This open source project offers project planning and scheduling, task management, roadmapping, and release planning.
Both of these open source projects are a subset of more sophisticated, non-free versions of the products which also offer support and various premium features.
GnuCash: Financial accounting software for small businesses and charities
Odoo: A suite of business management software tools including CRM, e-commerce, billing, and accounting. A commercial product is available alongside the free open source edition.
Open Source Billing: A completely free invoicing and reporting tool.