Open Source software: benefits and drawbacks
Potential benefits of Open Source software
- Top of the list for most people is saving money: software is either low-cost or free, as are upgrades and other extras.
- Some Open Source software will reliably run on older computers.
- The Open Source community can offer speedy and enthusiastic support. Users and developers often participate because of personal interest in a specific application so will frequently go the extramile to offer help.
- Open Source software can usually be customised. If you want to add a feature or change the way it works you could find someone to do it for you – or learn the programming language and make the changes yourself.
- Because of the dispersed nature of Open Source development there are lots of helpful websites about Open Source.
- You get a warm glow because you’re supporting a movement that believes in building collective knowledge rather than commercial exploitation.
Potential drawbacks of Open Source software
- Although the software is free you may have to pay for professional advice and support, including installation and maintenance of software, and training in its use.
- You’ll probably need some help to make sense of all the choices.
- As with most technical issues, plain English has yet to establish a firm foothold. You can encounter problems with jargon and spend a lot of time trying to understand what on earth someone is talking about.
- Funders may need you to use an Access database or Excel spreadsheet that they provide. Although Open Source versions of these programs exist it is possible that features may not work or the systems will not be compatible.
- Many people active in the Open Source community are developers, not end users of the software. Documentation is often aimed at a techie audience and may not be helpful to the average person looking for basic help.
- Not all Open Source software is easy to install and set up, although it is becoming more user-friendly all the time.
Operating systems: an Open Source alternative to Windows and Mac
Linux-based operating systems are available with many of the features familiar to users of Windows or a Mac. This is worth bearing in mind next time you’re asked to pay £100 to get Vista or the new version of Apple’s OSX, especially if you multiply that sum by the number of computers in your organisation.
There are many different versions of Linux, commonly known as Distributions, which have different features and look different. One of the most popular with VCOs is Ubuntu, which has been used in several recent trials within the UK voluntary and community sector and has proved to be stable and easy to learn.
Getting a copy of Ubuntu shouldn’t be a problem; there are Linux magazines in most news agents with CDs on the cover, containing operating systems and useful programmes. Or you can download it from the Internet free of charge, or buy a copy on CD for £3.50 from The Linux Shop www.thelinuxshop.co.uk – find it in their best seller list.
Who can help you with Open Source?
The world of Open Source can be very confusing. Even if you’re keen to try this route it can be difficult to know what to do, and getting help can be a problem.
Many mainstream ICT support companies work almost exclusively with Microsoft products and can’t advise on Open Source. Conversely there is certainly no shortage of Open Source zealots, whose views about the inherent value of using Open Source software mean they are less than even-handed when thinking about what is the right software for you.
Many not-for-profit organisations in the UK can offer Open Source expertise, including case studies of how it can be used and training and technical support in Open Source software.
It is seen as a way of saving money as well as a good fit with the collaborative values of the sector. Recent examples show that support is available to deal with the technical side of the changeover and users will generally adapt quickly and easily to the new software.
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