Open Source Isn’t Free

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Whoa, slow down. Read the title again. Open source isn’t free. But that doesn’t even sound right! Isn’t the inherent nature of the term open source meant to imply a freely distributable source?

According to Wikipedia, open source is defined as follows:

In production and development, open source as a development model promotes a universal access via free license to a product’s design or blueprint, and b) universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it by anyone.

That certainly seems to imply that open source is free. So why would I suggest that it isn’t? I’d like to offer two counter points to the idea that open source is a completely free model.

Open Source Costs Time

I have no doubt everyone has heard the age old advice:

“Time is money.”

If we keep that principle in mind then obviously spending time on something equates to a cost. Open source will absolutely take time. If you’re the originator you will find yourself spending hundreds of hours (thousands even) improving, maintaining, managing the open source software you are distributing. That’s expensive. If you are merely a consumer of an open source product you will undoubtedly find ways you’ll need to customize the software to meet your needs. (That’s one of the reasons you probably chose open source in the beginning).

The ability to customize and modify the source code is an attractive perk of using open source, but beware this alluring benefit also comes with a significant opportunity to become a major time sink.

Takeaway: Be sure to consider the time you will spend if you select an open source model.

Open Source Costs Energy

The second point might not seem so expensive to you. Open source will cost you energy. Energy in the form of learning new software, learning new code, learning a new community. The energy expense is closely tied to the time expense. You’ll spend time AND energy working with open source. Obviously you’ll spend both of these with other models as well, but when the opportunity exists to “tinker” in the source code, the design, or the blueprint of the product the results will be a much greater expenditure of time and energy.

Remember, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This applies to more than just Speedo swimsuits. Be thoughtful as you embark on an open source model. Plan how and where you will spend your time and energy and monitor yourself. Don’t go overboard with customizations and modifications. Or if you find you have to, be sure to budget appropriately.

Takeaway: You will spend more energy learning open source than just how to use a program.

Don’t go into open source blindly believing the “everything is free” philosophy. Open source isn’t free and it can be very expensive. That should not discourage you from using open source. There are a multitude of reasons why open source provides you with a better solution than a closed source model. Use open source but be prepared for the costs involved.

WordPress, One Billion Dollars, and You

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The tech news blogs were hot today with stories of Automattic seeking an additional round of investor funding which would place the company valuation at a cool one billion dollars ($1,000,000,000). Let’s look back quickly at a couple reasons why WordPress has proven to be so successful and then how you can apply it to your business.

Automattic is best known as the company behind the popular open source content management system WordPress. Matt Mullenwig, the founder of WordPress and now CTO at Automattic has displayed a very clear vision for how the organization should be run. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect. In fact, I have had several strong disagreements with WordPress decisions through the years, but I can’t argue with their success.

I have enjoyed the opportunity of chatting about WordPress with Matt and picking his brain for his reasons behind some of the decisions they’ve made and I can’t deny it certainly makes sense. I absolutely respect their focused determination to provide an unchanging, stable platform for their users. Matt made the comment once how WordPress “sought to sustain the technical debt so the user would not have to.” I think that’s a valuable insight into some of the core principles WordPress maintains.

Let’s look quickly at some other parts of that philosophy:

Design for the Majority: WordPress has clearly identified their target market. They focus heavily on the “non-technically minded” This is the user base they build software for. Clearly defined, easy to identify, and focused. And it’s important to note they recognize this majority is not represented by the 1% vocal minority. They seek out their target audience by listening to them at events around the globe. One-on-one, in-person, listening; to more than just those loud individuals online.

If you run a business, be sure you know your specific target market. And no, everyone in the world over the age of 12 is not a target market. And listen. Listen to what your majority says, and be cautious to not fall into the trap of listening to only the vocal minority.

Striving for Simplicity: WordPress has several points of their philosophy which deal directly with this notion of simplicity. They don’t add option on top of option, they don’t add everything requested into the core, and they seek to improve each release by becoming easier to user. Does this sound like any other familiar and wildly successful company? If you thought of Apple, you’re right. In their very first marketing brochure ever the headline was:

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Sounds similar right? Steve Jobs was obsessed with the idea of simplicity in design and he built Apple around that same core value. It was successful for them. WordPress has wisely positioned themselves to take advantage of the same important rule. 

Remember this when organizing and deciding on your business goals. Don’t add in everything you’re asked for by your customers. Be thoughtful and pay attention to your overall product. Make sure you stay focused on your goals and be ridiculously driven by accomplishing them.

Bill of Rights: The last aspect of the WordPress philosophy focuses on the license and distribution of their software. They believe in Open Source. They’ve determined the values of offering a free product which can be easily shared, changed, distributed, and copied. They believe in the value of community and the importance of sharing with all.

Other open source projects have led the way in this area and proven how successful this can be. Linux, the world’s most widely used server operating system, was built on this same principle. The four freedoms, as they are frequently called, have shown time and again the value of open source and how the world has been improved as a result.

Consider open source when building your business. You may not open source your core technology because you feel you have an advantage but there are plenty of secondary tools you will use or build which you could open source and “give back” to the community. Don’t overlook this opportunity.

I encourage you to read the full philosophy of WordPress. Looking at the list I think there are several elements which have helped them as they have grown as an organization over the years. Then, once you’ve read it – you should seek to apply some of the similar ideas for your own business.

Is WordPress worth one billion dollars? I couldn’t say, but I can tell you this much – the core values they have determinedly followed and maintained through the past decade are a great model to follow and I wish them nothing but success as they seek to fulfill their philosophy. Can you say the same for your business?

The Ugly Truth About Open Source

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When using open source software it’s important to recognize the limitations and struggles you’ll encounter. Open source is not equivalent to perfect software. Let’s discuss the ugly truth about open source software.

We all agree the importance open source software has come to play in our world. In fact, as mentioned previously it’s quite the buzz word. But that does not imply perfection. In fact there are many reasons why open source is not perfect and I’ve written previously about 5 ways you’ll fail at open source. I assume you’ve all read that article, have protected yourself against those failures and have pushed boldly on into implementing open source in your company or organization. Congratulations.

Woohoo

If you’re anything like me when I started with open source you’re probably a bit like a kid in a candy store. All the different software products you can now use, and so many of them free and open source ready to be used. It can be overwhelming, and exciting all at the same time. No doubt you’ll start downloading, forking, installing and playing with more than just one. And here’s where the dark side starts to creep in. Here’s the one key takeaway from this entire post:

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Failure to Integrate is the often neglected side effect of all these open source products. You’ve downloaded and installed 3 or 4 different tools you like. All of them have great features, but now what do you do? Does each user need to login 3 or 4 different times? Does each application have a completely different ‘look and feel’? Your website can quickly become a disjointed mashup of different applications. You’ll find areas that overlap between them as well. Now you have a website where there are multiple ways to perform the same action, but each looks different. Your users will be confused, frustrated, and possibly irritated when trying to complete an action.

Side Note

Now all of you who are programmers or coders know there are ways to solve this. We can easily write a new application using Composer and Packagist to build a single application with the various bits and pieces we want. And yes, that is a great way to build a cohesive full-service solution which takes advantage of all the open source projects without the integration failures. But I’m looking at the site maintainer, the builder, the end-user who is looking at completed projects ready for installation and use.

When organizing your site and exploring the great wide open space of open source technology and products, please exercise self-control, caution, and a bit of discretion. Your goal should be to use open source for your organization’s success and do so effectively. Be sure the end result is a cohesive site which is easy to use, conveys your brand objective and doesn’t leave the user feeling unsure of your mission.

I believe in open source

I completely encourage every business to use open source. The rewards are tremendous. The software available is incredible and the value you can add to your company is huge. Absolutely explore the various offerings. What I find myself most often recommending is setting up a testing server just for the installation of the many different tools you want to try (or just use online demos).

Remember, your staging or production server is not the place where you test software. Once you’ve played around with it, and you decide it’s a tool you want to use on your site – talk to your developer about integration. Find out what it will take to integrate it seamlessly into your existing website. Discuss the areas of overlap and how to handle them. Make a plan. Focus on your end user experience and how to make it a simple, intuitive website. Use open source the right way.