When choosing software systems, you will frequently find yourself facing a choice: do you go for the traditional model of licensed software, or do you dip your toe into the uncharted waters of open source?
This question is often framed as a war between open source and commercial users. However, there’s no right answer to the question of which is better. There are distinct benefits and disadvantages of both open source and licensed software; the solution you should go for largely depends on your organisation and its goals. Your choice should be the software that is the simplest for you and your business to use every day. We’ve put together this useful guide to explain the difference between open source vs licensed software, and the advantages and difficulties of both, so that you can more easily choose the software you need.
What is Open Source?
Open source software is distributed under a licensing agreement which permits the software’s code to be shared, viewed and modified by other parties. This means that absolutely anyone who knows how can use and modify open source software, completely free of charge. As a result, software can evolve as a result of the alterations of developers anywhere in the world to a point where the final form is virtually unrecognisable. This model produces an increasingly more diverse scope of design perspective than a single company would be able to foster and sustain long-term. However, though it seems utopian, it can leave users vulnerable to hackers and saboteurs in whose interests it is to destroy the software.
What is Licensed Software?
Licensed software is proprietary software distributed under a licensing agreement to authorised users. It involves private modification, copying and republishing restrictions. In other words, the source code is not shared with the public for anyone to look at or change. Businesses are often defensive of their product and eager to preserve control of their brand and the user experience delivered to their customers, and licensing agreements allow them to do this.
What are the Differences between Open Source and Licensed Software?
Cost - Though open source software is ‘free’, there are long term costs associated with it such as implementation, innovation, offering support, and investing in infrastructure as your organisation progresses, technology changes, and your requirements grow.
More and more, open software providers also charge for extras such as add-ons, integration, and additional services, which can sometimes undo any cost-saving advantages you might have enjoyed. Instead of being free, you pay for a service with open source software.
Licensed software can vary considerably, depending on the complexity of the solution. This includes a base fee for software, integration and services and annual licensing/support fees. Though the hard cost can be higher, you pay for a more customised product from a reliable name, improved security and functionality, continuous innovation, greater scalability, ongoing training and support and a lower requirement for technical skills.
Support - Open source software depends on a loyal and engaged online community providing support through forums and blogs. However, the response times of such communities are naturally slower than dedicated support teams. Questions may go unanswered as there may not necessarily be an expert on hand, and there is no incentive for these communities to help except wanting to be cooperative.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of licensed software is ongoing support, which can assist users without much technical skill. This support can include user manuals and points of contact for immediate assistance from experts who are closely acquainted with the product or service.
Security - As open source software isn’t developed in a controlled environment, security is often a concern. As developers are situated all around the world, there is often a lack of continuity and shared direction that counteracts effective communication. As software isn’t always peer-reviewed or validated, a developer could implant a backdoor Trojan into the software without the user being aware of it.
Licensed software tends to be perceived as more secure since unlike open source software, it’s developed in a controlled environment by a focussed team with a common direction. The team of developers are the only people who can view or edit the source code. This means that it’s heavily audited and the risk of backdoor Trojans is considerably diminished.
Practicality - As open source software tends not to be reviewed as much by usability experts and accommodates to developers rather than the majority of layperson users, the convenience of open source software is frequently criticised. There is often no user guide written, as they are not a legal requirement, and when they are written, they are again made without less experienced users in mind, with technical language and jargon that without sufficient experience would be difficult to understand.
Expert usability testing has enabled licensed software to be more practical for a wider audience. User manuals are usually on hand for instant reference and swift training, and support services ensure that as much as possible is gotten out of the software.
Whether to choose open source or licensed software depends on the needs of your business. If the usefulness of a system that is free of cost to use and distribute, with no agreements or constraints that have to be accepted, outweighs the running costs, security risks and lack of support, then it would probably be in your interest to join the growing trend of open source software. However, if you’re a large business with security concerns, the need for quick support and the money to pay upfront costs, then you may better suit licensed software.