Pay a little now, pay a lot later

Pay a little now, pay a lot later


Freedom of choice is an ideal. It’s also increasingly obvious that it’s almost always the most pragmatic approach, whether involving economic issues that affect billions of people or comparison shopping for a pair of jeans. Unfortunately, the people who voluntarily give up their own are the ones who can least afford to do so.

Choosing freedom or bondage isn’t very important for a typical home computer user. Most people only use the software that comes bundled with their computer, and perhaps the occasional shareware game. Basically, they don’t invest much in their setup beyond the original hardware purchase. Replace their PC with a Mac or a Linux box and they’d probably forget the difference after a day or so. This is not the case, though, with businesses who dedicate significant portions of their income to IT. It’s often prohibitively expensive to alter a company’s computing infrastructure once it’s been established, so choosing well from the first day is critically important. That is one of the main reasons why I could never recommend a proprietary system to a business owner.

First, selecting a proprietary system inherently means rejecting a majority of available options. Most business can ill afford to waive the possibility to use the best tools available for their needs. Yet, except for a few highly industry-specific exceptions, that’s exactly what the average business does when they pick closed software. Although the sheer number of free applications can be overwhelming, chances are excellent that a company can find a perfect solution for their problems, or at least one that can be easily tweaked by internal staff.

Second, the culture of closed software is the culture of throwing money at a problem—any problem. Those of us who use and write free software for a living are amazed at the willingness of people to buy the most basic tools and components imaginable. I simply can’t imagine paying for a text editor, for example, or a proprietary library to let me access a database. However, closed systems tend to get people into the habit of buying every little piece of functionality. The “you get what you pay for” mentality is hugely, unnecessarily expensive almost from the start.

Finally, free software and open standards are almost always advocated by the same set of people. As I (and many others) have said before, open systems encourage competition on merit, not the ability to enforce monopoly-benefitting conditions. If a company standardizes on the OpenDocument format for their word processing files, they can pick and choose the applications used to create and edit them—and later change their mind if something better comes along. On the other hand, selecting Microsoft’s DOC format gives the choice of... Word. Nothing else can load and save its files perfectly, and even if an otherwise much better word processor were released, switching to it would probably involve a lengthy and expensive conversion process.

Freedom certainly demands responsibility, and it’s not always simple. It’s tempting to delegate your decision making to a vendor or consultant and ask them to pick something nice and send an invoice. Still, business owners must know the ramifications before selecting an “easy”, proprietary option. The “obvious” choice often involves a bit more money in the short term, and a lot more down the road when the full effects of discarding freedom make themselves known.

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Comments

wibble's picture
Submitted by wibble on

I remain amazed at the arrogance of some of those that work (exclusively) in free (a.k.a. open source) software.

I can easily imagine paying for a fine Java development environment such as IntelliJ IDEA when you compare it to it Eclipse. On the surface the differences are small but extensive use of either had led me to the conclusion that IDEA is superior to Eclipse, for me.

Please disabuse yourself of the notion that any business will standardise on anything other than a Windows desktop. Linux, even now, is still finding its destop feet when you look at the issues involved in the daily care, and support, of non-technical users in a non-Windows environment.

Having said all of that, I absolutely hate having to use Outlook for my e-mail at work; and I hate the awful calendaring program that goes with it; and I hate the awful firewall that goes with all of it.

I hate it ... but I can live with it.

We don't (as a startup) have the luxury of having people waste their time on IT support. We need to get on with bringing our next product to market.

Personally, if I had been here at the start I would have advocated an Open Source approach and would have insisted on a Linux server as the hub of all activity even if the desktops were all Windows.

But I wasn't here at the start and my voice was a small one initially.

Frankly, I am glad to see one third of the staff using something other than IE to surf the web. Getting others to try OpenOffice.org works for some stuff but it isn't going to take the office over, not when we already have all the MS-Office licenses that we need.

Thankfully, we have little document exchange with the outside world and what documents we do exchange are in PDF format (thnk you PDFCreator).

I do not have the luxury of sitting in a Open Source bubble where everything OS is good and everything proprietory is bad. I have to live and work in the real world and that means putting up with other people's choices.

I like OpenOffice.org Writer application,. I really do. However, when push comes to shove, I have to work with others and they prefer Word. They don't know what else is available. They do not realise what an awful job Word does and how inconsistent it is.

I get things done.

It may not be the pure, open solution that others long for, but ... it works well enough.

Kirk Strauser's picture

I can easily imagine paying for a fine Java development environment such as IntelliJ IDEA when you compare it to it Eclipse. On the surface the differences are small but extensive use of either had led me to the conclusion that IDEA is superior to Eclipse, for me.

That's quite a bit different than the sort of trivial application I was referring to. For example, I've seen Windows programmers cheerfully pay for an image viewing component. An image viewer?!? Those things are a dime-a-dozen; I can't imagine actually spending money on such a thing. No, I wouldn't think anything of your buying IDEA if that's what works for you. Just don't turn around the next day and buy a library to send email.

Please disabuse yourself of the notion that any business will standardise on anything other than a Windows desktop.

Too late. It's already happening. I've seen Linux installations creeping into unexpected places, such as the receptionist's desk, where the users need a small set of commodity software (word processor, email client, web browser) and little else. Why spend money on Windows + Office when there's little or no marginal increase on return?

Robert Pogson's picture

Wibble wrote:
"Please disabuse yourself of the notion that any business will standardise on anything other than a Windows desktop. Linux, even now, is still finding its destop feet when you look at the issues involved in the daily care, and support, of non-technical users in a non-Windows environment."

The longer a business has been in operation, the deeper is the lock-in hole they have dug. New businesses have no such overhead and Linux will help them be more competitive. Big businesses that wish to reduce costs can convert, but they have more conversion headaches.

My current project is a new school. An old subnet will be moved from the old school with Windows for a particular application. The rest of the school, 150 seats, will be all Linux thin clients. This dramatically reduces the cost per seat of hardware acquisition and the saving on Microsoftian licences will go to new hardware. The school will have twice as much hardware as they could have with the budget if they had stuck with Windows. Businesses can see the advantages of lower TCO in capital cost and operations. For simple desktop tasks not requiring custom software there is plenty of quite usable software available on Linux. I have been using nothing but Linux in schools for seven years and the choices get better every year. If teachers and students can handle Linux with very little effort, there is nothing holding you back.

A problem is an opportunity.

Jumanous's picture
Submitted by Jumanous on

I have heard so many linux/mac people say this, but the reality of the world is, everyone on the planet with rare exception, grows up using a PC. So everyone knows how to use it instinctively. Most linux/mac based software has a completely different way of doing the same thing.. so though it may be actually easier if you had never used a computer before, after getting a windows mindset, almost all linux and mac based programs are utterly confusing.

My point is, if you want to get windows users to use your mac/linux applications, make them more windows like. I understand the quandry here, but it is a reality. 90% of computer users (give or take), are windows users, and if you want to get them, you must write software they can use without any effort. Open office for example. Totally unusable for a Office XP user... plus it is ugly, so visually people don't like the change.

Photoshop is a prime example in the reverse. It is singly the most annoying graphics application on the planet. All the floating windows are utterly painful. This is a mac based interface, and it pisses off PC users no end. However... most users in the graphic art area are mac users, so to get mac users to buy PCs, you need to write programs that work with their brain.

As a windows user who is realitively adept at learning new things, I would only start using linux if 2 things happened:
1. There were free replacement applications that looks better, runs faster, and operates the same (not easier).
2. Linux had the ability to run PC games better... sounds stupid, but this is the prime reason linux has little hope of becoming number one. People who work hard, want the option to play as well, without switching operating systems to do so. Cause reality, if your current operating system does everything you want it to, why switch? Sad to say piracy removes "free" as a valid incentive to many users.

The second one is a tough one, and possibly not as nessesary, but the first is vital for any linux developer.

Kirk Strauser's picture

I understand your point, but don't quite agree with it. In particular, I think that OpenOffice is much closer to what Windows users know than is the upcoming Office 2007 release. It's not really fair to judge Unix applications by standards that Windows couldn't live up to, either.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

.. everyone on the planet with rare exception, grows up using a PC.

Ignoring the fact that you mention a hardware architecture when you are referring to an operating system, there's also the small matter of there being about 6 billion people in the world. Of those approximately 12 per-cent use personal computers[1]. So "everyone on the planet" is a little over the top I think.

So everyone knows how to use it instinctively.

Instinctively? That is a bold statement to make. I would have said no piece of technology can claim to be "instinctive" without prior user exposure to similar technologies. Perhaps the people you describe are more used to a certain set of features and functions but that does not make those features instinctive any more than a car is instinctive if you've only driven motorcycles.

Most linux/mac based software has a completely different way of doing the same thing..

Sorry but this statement just highlights the fact that you do not have much experience of free software applications and it is patently untrue. I could rattle off examples for ages but to use one: to create a new mail message in Kmail I click on a toolbar icon that looks like an envelope with a sparkle on it or I can click the File menu and select New Message or I can press CTRL+N. ALL of these are near-identical to the way I would do it in Outlook.

My point is, if you want to get windows users to use your mac/linux applications, make them more windows like.
I understand the quandary here, but it is a reality. 90% of computer users (give or take), are windows users, and if you want to get them, you must write software they can use without any effort. Open office for example. Totally unusable for a Office XP user... plus it is ugly, so visually people don't like the change.

Proprietary applications often have varying interfaces. Some use the Windows API, some don't. Some use parts of it and others choose not to. Some Microsoft applications have interfaces that drastically change between versions. As for wanting windows users - whilst they may be the target of some distro's they are probably not the aim of the free software community which is (IMHO and experience) to produce software which performs the tasks they need without the shackles of proprietary licences.
I'm with Maddog[2] on this issue of attracting Windows users to Linux. Let's go for the 88% of people who don't have a computer. The one-laptop-per-child project is a good example of this at work. Try telling those kids that they'll be better off with Vista and Office 2007 - and of course they'll have to learn one of the relatively small number of languages that Office supports first.

Photoshop is a prime example in the reverse. It is singly the most annoying graphics application on the planet. All the floating windows are utterly painful. This is a mac based interface, and it pisses off PC users no end. However... most users in the graphic art area are mac users, so to get mac users to buy PCs, you need to write programs that work with their brain.

I think you'll find that the application was written without analysis of the way a Mac user thinks. Photoshop users think that way because that's the way Photoshop works. Word users will think in certain ways because that is how they are used to doing it and much of them will come unstuck when Office 2007 comes out.

As a windows user who is relatively adept at learning new things, I would only start using linux if 2 things happened:
1. There were free replacement applications that looks better, runs faster, and operates the same (not easier).

If you are using a free software desktop then look and feel is entirely up to you. "Better" is a subjective word. This may come as something new to you as a Windows user but free windows managers permit you to chaneg pretty much everything not just the background, colours and fonts.
Running faster is really a hardware issue but just in case your experience of Linux is via a Live CD, it does run a lot faster when it's installed :o).
Operates the same? Same as which competing proprietary application? Should K3B (CD burning software) operate the same as Nero, Easy CD creator or Pyro? Most of the free software applications that target common usage areas already operate on a similar basis to proprietary ones. Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org all operate on similar principles to other well known apps. The GIMP is just as confusing as Photoshop for a newbie!

2. Linux had the ability to run PC games better... sounds stupid, but this is the prime reason linux has little hope of becoming number one. People who work hard, want the option to play as well, without switching operating systems to do so.

Okay here's the main error in your argument. You assume that free software exists to compete with proprietary software. It's an understandable mistake because you have grown up in a world where the available software is competing for your money and marketing teams have the biggest budgets. In reality much free software exists because someone - usually the developers - had a need for it and a need for it to be based on freedom. Most of the projects on sourceforge exist to fulfil a need not to compete in a marketplace.

I agree that the larger - commercially based - distro's are in the business of attracting customers but the software used in their distributions is rarely created with that in mind. Free software looks to attract users not customers. Hence it rarely has a demographic, a target market or an aim to demolish the competition. Free software is about choice. It does not say "look use me because I'm 100 times better than the one you pay for"[3], it says "Here's an alternative , one that doesn't tie you down and one in which you can play an active part".

Free software exists to give us a choice. The proprietary software claims the same but in reality their main aim seems to be the best seller which usually means putting the others out of business.

[1] Source: Geohive (http://www.geohive.com/charts/charts.php?xml=ec_inet&xsl=ec_inet_top2)
[2] At least I think it was him who said it first.
[3] I accept that many FOSS advocates do make statements like this but the software and the developers of it are not really making that statement.

anelson's picture
Submitted by anelson on

I am in the process of bringing Linux into my environment. One thing that I have come to believe in the course of doing this work is that no one has really shown that using a free software stack provides a compelling cost structure that provides a business comparative advantage.

For instance, we make drilling mud and cat litter. If I can adpot a free stack or a mixed free/commercial stack and so lower my costs that it shows up in bottom line terms as a redecution in Admin costs that is really significant, I can leverage my cost advantage to compete better in my market. Failing that, I have to use really flawed concepts like TCO that are too local to IT and do not quantify a real business comparative advantage.

Linux and free software are really good products. But can I really rule the drilling mud and cat litter world if I go to a free software stack? I'm sure our CEO would like to know if that is the case.

More to the point if you could point out a business where that had already been shown to be the case, I should think you would really be able to make this type of case.

Kirk Strauser's picture

I'm as disenchanted with TCO as you are, but sometimes you have to make some educated guesses. As I mentioned in another blog my company's business logic is buried in many years' worth of Visual FoxPro. The problem is that the writing is on the wall (in this case, MS's VFP FAQ): it will never become a .NET language, it will never be ported to 64-bit platforms, and the database will never support more than 2GB. Their new internal development "will also help improve the ability for Visual FoxPro 9.0 solutions to be successfully deployed on the upcoming new Windows operating system Microsoft Vista (formerly code named Longhorn)", and I leave it to the reader to decide exactly what "ability [...] to be successfully deployed" means (is the current VFP runtime incompatible with Vista in some way that they're trying to fix?).

In short, its future looks bleak, and here we sit with some rather unpleasant options. Do we wait it out and hope that Microsoft updates FoxPro to something we'll still be able to use ten years from now? Or do we spend a few man-years porting our mission-critical code to a different language? If we pick the former and guess wrong, we're beyond screwed. If we pick the latter and guess wrong, my boss is out a few hundred thousand dollars.

I honestly don't know how you calculate those issues into TCO. In our case, picking the proprietary solution either saved us thousands of dollars by providing an easy-to-use IDE that enabled us to get more work done, or cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars by yanking the rug out from under us. We have no ability to influence the outcome, so all we can do is hope that Microsoft decides to be gentle.

compaqdrew's picture
Submitted by compaqdrew on

It looks like you made a stop by my blog (Thanks!) and left a comment.

First of all, it appears that you've taken my comments a bit too personally. My critique of your ideas is in no way a critique of your person--often the worst of us have the best ideas, and vice versa.

Secondly, I fail to see how a company as large and complex as Microsoft can have a single "Redmond way." There are admittedly some very loud dunderheads there, some of whom you certainly picked on in your article, but, as I mentioned, Ye Olde Guarde is on its way out, and they're exploring new business models. Word on the street is that top Microsoft execs are considering opening some of Vista+1's codebase under a real OSS license.

Additionally, I hardly think that the "reputation" you are trying to seek for OSS is a valid indicator for any company doing a serious cost-benefit analysis. In the same way that the fact that many people think that Microsoft products are awesome in no way makes it true, if you succeed in building a reputation for free/OSS software as being awesome (which no doubt will happen eventually), it has no actual bearing on the reality of the software as being a particularly good or bad choice, at least from a business standpoint.

Lastly, my comments regarding your blanket statements which have no relationship with fact still stand.

Cheers,

Drew

Kirk Strauser's picture

I took it the way you meant. If I took personal offense to comments from random strangers on the Internet, I never would have made it this far. :-)

I think (and hope) that you're right about Microsoft's new direction. As it stands today, though, they're not there. I can't recommend their current products under their current business model.

"Reputation" was a stupid misspelling of "repetition". I meant to repeat the idea that Free software is a viable choice for business solutions, my hope being that some manager will decide that he's heard enough about it to give it a try. If we don't talk about it, people will forget that it's there.

Finally, this blog is an opinion piece. Maybe I should use more references to support my opinions, but it's not my intent to rigorously prove them. My "real" articles are definitely better referenced.

Author information

Kirk Strauser's picture

Biography

Kirk Strauser has a BSc in Computer Science from Missouri State University. He works as a network application developer for The Day Companies, and runs a small consulting firm that specializes in network monitoring and email filtering for a wide array of clients. He has released several programs under free software licenses, and is active on several free software support mailing lists and community websites.