Dan Schaefer

Content Writer, Programmer, Marketing Consultant

January 14th, 2014

Open Source Software: “Free” as in “Salary”

Marketing Tools, by Dan Schaefer.

While shopping around for a good marketing software solution, you may be tempted by the free price tag of Open Source Software.

Free? Did you say free? Hey, who can beat that price?

Indeed, Open Source is “Free,” but keep in mind that the initial price tag is the only thing that’s free. The reality of the real price may hit you sometime later, as you struggle to install, configure and maintain the free software.

open-source-softwareOne good example is the Open Source web content management system known as Drupal.

Here’s the scenario: You need a website for your marketing department, but your website budget is somewhere south of the cost of a hamburger. You heard Drupal is a great content management system, so you go to the drupal.com website and download the latest version. So far, everything has been free, and you may well look like a hero to your boss. Job done, right?

Hardly. You’ll discover very quickly that the website doesn’t simply create itself. After reading a Wiki page, you figure out that you need a website server, so you allocate a GoDaddy server and install Drupal. Job done?

Nope. Now you have to select or create a template and upload your artwork. If you want a blog, you’ll have to select and install the blog module. If you want layered security, you’ll have to dive into ill-structured online documentation to figure it out.

Before long, you realize that while you didn’t spend a penny to acquire the software, a good chunk of your time was taken away from your other responsibilities. Considering your hourly salary plus taxes plus benefits – including your matching 401K – your eight-hour escapade has cost the company roughly $800. And you’ve only just begun. You wrestle with Drupal’s stubborn propensity to overwrite your template styles, you need to swap out the editor for something that your team can use, you link in a contact form module that – for some strange reason – blows out your call-to-action button, and so on.

Fast-forward three months: you’ve spent $30,000 of company time, and your boss wonders why you’re ignoring your other responsibilities. Now your job is in jeopardy. But hey, you saved money, right?

Though slightly exaggerated, the above scenario illustrates what can happen when tempted by the price tag of Open Source. While you could have asked the company to spend $30,000 for a professional to put together a decent website for you, you were instead lured by the promise of freedom. And in the end, you realized that freedom has a price.

There is an expression in the software community that is used to describe the different types of “Free” software. Richard Stallman summarized it like this: “Think of free as in free speech, not free beer.” The distinction is used to recognize that Open Source is free to use, update and modify. Beer, on the other hand, is not free. Someone may give you a beer (au gratis), but you are not free to tinker with the recipe or sell it.

The bottom line is that Open Source may have a free price tag, but in the end, the price of freedom has a cost, as expressed in someone’s salary. You still need to employ someone to install, modify and update it. While this cost may appear under the “labor” line item within the accounting department, it is still a cost that your company must bear.

The free price tag of Open Source software should never be interpreted as a free solution.  Open Source software generally comes with sub-optimal documentation and no support, shifting the burden of installation, configuration and maintenance onto the end user. The resulting labor cost must be factored into the final price of your solution.

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