Tech & Work

Open source or proprietary: Which software model is better for the consumer?

As a supporter of open source, I am happy to see the re-energized debate over open source vs. proprietary software. Recent news that both Dell and HP are offering preloaded Linux on desktops, coupled with Microsoft's ongoing Vista woes, has inevitably fired up both sides here at TechRepublic and elsewhere. To answer the question of which model is better for the consumer, I'm going to look at the benefits and drawbacks of each. To begin with, let's define both models' philosophies.

Proprietary software's concept: "Let's keep it secret so we can make money off selling it."

Open Source software's concept: "I find this useful, maybe some others will as well." This seems illogical when you look at companies such as Red Hat, Mandriva, and Novell's SUSE division, yet if you look closer, they are really selling support, not the software. This is the business model of open source companies: Let's make money by supporting the software that others are giving away.

Benefits to proprietary software

With any proprietary software, there is a single source for support, bug fixes, security fixes, or regular updates / upgrades. This means you know who to harass to get it working right, if it can be made to work right.

Benefits to open source software

  • Very fast fixes for bugs and security exploits, with very fast upgrades to new releases
  • Multiple options for software for any given task
  • Multiple support streams, though this can be a drawback as well
  • A lower cost to obtain, since it is usually free
  • Feature implementation is faster

Fast fixes? How can open source software be fixed faster than proprietary software? Isn't someone paying programmers to fix proprietary software?

Yes, and that is why proprietary software takes longer to fix. No company can afford to have millions of programmers going over the code 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Open source is all volunteer, from all over the world, so at any given time there are millions of people looking at the source code to find or fix a problem with open source software — not always millions on each piece of software, but millions overall.

Multiple options are a benefit?

Yes, since the number of options for any particular task causes open source software to operate in a "free market economy," where the better software gets used and improved faster. A no-option proprietary software has no competition, so has no compelling motive to fix problems or improve the product.

Multiple support streams are a benefit?

Yes, since you can find support that fits your specific needs and is available when you NEED it, not when the supporting company is open for business.

Free is better? When my staff is not familiar with the product? Yes, since the popular open source packages have similar setup to the comparable proprietary software, the switch costs of training staff are at most the same as changing versions of proprietary software.

Open source implements requested features faster? Yes, by two different methods:

  • You ask for a feature from the developers and someone monitoring the request channel likes the idea and gets it working.
  • You have programmers on staff and get them to implement the feature, and then give the source code to the development team of the application. This happens fairly often. (For example, Postgresql database engine actually has people developing the software, paid to do so by their employers, whose companies use Postgresql to conduct normal business operations.)

Drawbacks to proprietary software

  • Slow bug fixes, security updates, and upgrades
  • Not a "free market economy" business model
  • Support limited to certain hours / days

Slow bug fixes? Not Free Market? Limited support?

Yes, the proprietary software company is only concerned with how much money they can get from you, not with product quality. Proprietary software is based on the communist style of one-size-fits all rather than the capitalist free market. They don't want to have to fix anything; they want you to be ignorant of the options, if you have any. They will make you "jump through hoops" to get support, and only offer support during limited hours of the day and on certain days of the week. Proprietary software companies ignore the change in society to a 24/7 time frame. They, like the governments and banks, operate like this is the 1800s, not the 21st century.

Drawbacks to open source software

  • Choices
  • Finding support

Choices are a drawback? Didn't you say they were a benefit? Yes, it can be both. It can be hard to pick the right open source software to best fit your needs.

What's so hard about finding support; aren't they supposed to be 24/7? Since there may be multiple streams for support of a single application, you have to decide whom to trust. In that most open source support is all volunteer, they are not paid to know what they are doing. And even though there are no posted hours, since there's no one-stop shop, you have to track down your support location.


As I stated at the beginning, I support using open source software, and only use open source software myself. Is it the right fit for everyone? I think it can be, if they are willing to put the same effort into learning it as they do their proprietary software. Open source is lacking software in several areas; it isn't ready to replace all proprietary software, only 95 percent of it. Autodesk doesn't have to worry, there is nothing in open source software that comes close to competing with Autocad, though there are several proprietary applications that do support the Open Source operating systems Autodesk ignores that give Autocad a run for it's money.

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