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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