May 2010 - Open Source Software

In the past months, Ribble Consultants has moved over to running Open Source software for all applications - including using Linux as an operating system rather than Windows. It's surprising how easy this is, how it allows us to do things that were otherwise impossible (like sharing the scanner) and how fast the computers run without the overheads of checking and registration put on by proprietary software.

This causes me to muse why it is that others, particularly in the third sector, don't use open source software more effectively.

Open source software is developed by the community and distributed free of charge on a basis which allows everyone to contribute. There's a lot of it about and it works – many have seen Firefox and Chrome (browsers), maybe used Thunderbird (e-mail) and Open Office. And a lot of websites are based on Linux (operating system) Apache (server) MySQL(database) and PHP (scripting). These are all applications which have been developed by small armies of volunteers, which are continually updated, and work well enough to be used commercially.

You'd be forgiven for supposing that this ethos would strike a chord with the third sector. But actually, while Bristol City is using open Office and Munich has decided to avoid Microsoft completely and change to Linux, most of our sector seem wedded to the idea of making Bill Gates even richer than he is already.

It's not just ideological. It's money (why are you raising money for licences to Microsoft rather than what your organisation is there for?). It's consistency (you can run the same open source system on every piece of hardware you've got – you don't need to upgrade hardware for the latest version and you don't need to buy extra licences to make sure everyone's got the same). It's the ability to do things simply, for example logging in on one computer from another. And it allows you to use things you couldn't otherwise afford unless you used them every day (like server software free of charge, or Open Proj instead of £500 for Microsoft Project). And it gets better – if you have to deal with other languages you can download different versions or add-ons at the click of a button (ever tried getting a foreign dictionary for MS Word?).

OK there are some downsides: you might need extra training. You might have difficulty finding support. And compatibility with the rest of the world might not be perfect (though it's generally pretty good). But couldn't we club together to solve these problems rather than paying for something we don't need and can't control?