The philosophy behind open source

Or: why clients make the right choice for the wrong reasons.

As an online strategy expert working for a web agency, I often advice our clients to use open source solutions for their digital products (websites, apps, platforms, or whatever they want), instead of using closed source solutions.

Choosing between open or closed source is a choice our clients often didn’t knew they’d have to make. To most clients the term open source is even completely new. Which, for me, is a worrying fact. And yes, that’s right, most of these clients don’t know much about web technology in general, but hey, that’s why they hire me.

Anyway: they all fall for the arguments that open source software (WordPress for example) is free, easy to use, and easily customizable. So they make the right choice and use open source solutions for their products. But mostly for the wrong reasons.

As you will see, choosing open source solutions is not just a practical, but also a fundamental and ideological choice.

In this post I try to explain why I believe that this principal and ideological choice fits well with modern organisations and businesses. In order to do that, let’s first take a look at why there is a difference between open and closed software.

The difference between open and closed software originates from a specific philosophy: the philosophy of connecting and sharing. This philosophy is fundamentally connected to the internet. It originates from the 50's and 60's, when universities started using their internet connections to share their home-made software. This way, they could review and modify each others code, which, of course, is all in line with the scientific principles of sharing knowledge.

But computer and internet technology kept growing and soon companies started commercializing and monetizing software. In order to earn money, they closed software for reviews and modifications. This resulted in two strongly different movements: open source vs. closed source.

Fundamental principles

To make you support open source as much as I do, I wrote down seven fundamental principles of the open source philosophy:

  • Freedom

Open source solutions provide the freedom to adapt them to your own needs. Don’t worry if the software isn’t exactly what you want off-the-shelf. It is made for you to change, connect or combine elements as you like.

  • Stability

Open source software is stable: there will be no sudden corporate decisions to change the solution, since in most cases there are no commercial or corporate interests involved in the development of the solution.

  • Worldwide communities

Frequently, large open source solutions are built and supported by world wide communities. They help each other by sharing knowledge, skills and experience. When you use an open source solution, you can rely on its community.

  • Transparency

Open source is transparent: you know exactly what happens “under the hood” and where your data is going. It is not a black box.

  • Continuity

From a business perspective: open source prevents vendor lock-ins. You can switch to another developer or agency without drastically changing or abandoning your products.

  • Agile and nimble

Usually, there is no sluggish organisation in control of open source software. Open source solutions are agile and nimble, which makes them highly adaptable to the latest technologies and developments.

  • Independent

Open source is independent: it thrives on the ideals and beliefs of the community. Not on commercial purposes. This makes open source solutions way less vulnerable for political, economical or social changes. In times of crisis, it will be the open source communities that keep on developing and growing.

Bonus arguments

Some (potential) clients are still not convinced when I explain them the philosophy above. That happens. From time to time I hear the same critical counter arguments, which can be easily overturned with the following bonus arguments:

“Your agency is quite expensive for using a solution everyone can use. My nephew/the kid next door can do this as well.”

Well, that might be correct, since everyone can use open source software. But choosing to use open source is not about choosing a product: you choose the expertise, knowledge, experience and service of a team. And the community behind that team. Knowing how to design, build, deploy and support your solution in order to achieve your goals; that is what open source is about.

“Everyone can contribute, amateurs included. We want professional solutions.”

True that. The contributions of amateurs will however be reviewed and improved by professionals. Since contributions are visible and transparent, developers want to build a product as professional as possible. Without bugs, errors or bad code.

“Development and support of small teams can easily die-off.”

True that, again. But how different is this from small closed source developing teams? In case a developer stops supporting or developing your open source product, you can take it to someone else. With closed source, this is not so easy.

“There is no clear roadmap for further development of the software. What can I expect in the long run?”

It is precisely the absence of a long-term vision that makes the software agile and nimble. Web technology develops so fast that a roadmap often only offers the illusion of security. Try to see this as an opportunity: as a new member of the community you can contribute to further development!

Do you support open source?

Cool! Now you know the right reasons to choose and support open source. My core message is: Choosing open source solutions is more than a financial or technical choice. Choosing open source is a fundamental and ideological choice that suits modern organizations that operate in rapidly changing environments.

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