Why pay for software in a day of open source?

You may have noticed the highly visible online argument going on between SixApart‘s Anil Dash and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. It escalated today when Matt continued the “open source vs. paid” debate (which is really open source ecosystem energy vs. a perceived slow-to-move commercial vendor positioning against open source).

This is amazingly healthy in my view and the competition for the hearts-n-minds of bloggers clearly is driving SixApart to build and deliver better and more robust services (and I’ve been waiting for them!).

I’d reframe this debate like this however: why should you pay for software in a day when open source is free and the ecosystem surrounding the successful projects is immense?

When I made my decision to begin blogging in earnest in 2004, there was only one vendor I was willing to bet my blogging on: SixApart’s Typepad hosting. Though I can easily install, run and maintain numerous types of open source packages (and could’ve with Movable Type, the software at the root of Typepad), I knew myself well enough and that I’d be twiddling bits instead of writing content if I used the then fairly immature WordPress. Typepad looked like a sure bet and had the momentum so that was my choice.

Even though I’ve been at the enterprise software level with Vignette and Lawson Software in leadership positions, for some clients I’ve chosen Joomla, Drupal and even used WordPress as a low-end content management engine. But when it comes to betting your business or a new initiative on a new category, it’s imperative there’s someone or some organization available to ensure a successful outcome with the software used.

  • Case in point:* I’ve looked at DOZENS and DOZENS of ecommerce packages to be the engine behind a Joomla installation. With enough futzing and heavy lifting, it’s possible to use any of the most popular packages: the integrated ones like the free VirtueMart; or the loose integrated (i.e., crappy integration) ones like OSCommerce or ZenCart; but let me tell you that they all work but require heavy development and a huge propeller on your beanie to make function. Looking nice and well designed? Not on your life.

    I instead opted to buy digiSHOP due to their reviews, attention to detail, hand-holding and support, even though they have zero integration with Joomla (albeit with a nice workaround). In one day it’s been a great experience and will shave off DOZENS OF HOURS of time from our development cycle and after all, doesn’t your time have some value?

  • Case in point: * When five other geeks and I decided to rollout Minnov8, we did so on WordPress. Mainly due to our complete control over the software, look-n-feel, and our ability to extend WordPress with a forum and other functionality going forward. In short, things we couldn’t do with Movable Type as well as we could with an open source project and a vibrant ecosystem behind it.

    But if one my enterprise clients was going to build out an enterprise-class blogging network (e.g., for a public blog, private client or customer service blogs, etc.) I’d recommend that — if they didn’t have savvy staff able to fully and completely maintain and architect a WordPress infrastructure — they pay a vendor like SixApart to ensure a rock-solid and successful implementation.

The old joke in I.T. circles regarding betting your business or initiative on open source is the VP of I.T. comes to the CIO about the fact that their mission-critical <place open source implementation here> installation went down. “What are you doing to fix it,” explodes the CIO. The VP responds, “Ahhh….well I did post a topic on the message board so someone should respond….at some point.

I’m a huge fanboy for open source (read my post, Why I’ve Become a WordPress Fanboy) and feel that it’s baselined information technology and is allowing us to build in ways I haven’t fully absorbed and, in many ways, is the true engine of innovation in the internet/web world. But when it comes to getting certain tasks done or obtaining service level agreements or guarantees that something will work and map to your desired outcome, you might want to pay for the software you use.


  1. PXLated on March 13, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Couldn’t agree more, I pay for Expression Engine simply because the support forum gets you an answer within seconds/minutes. That’s not been the case with all the open-source platforms I’ve tried (probably almost as many as you). And, with most open-source, my experience ha been all the add-ons to extend the functionality (to cms, or forum, or even some basic functions) don’t always play nice together, they always seemed to be more work than they’re worth and time is money.

  2. PXLated on March 13, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    And, it just gets better…
    And, even better for the propeller heads, it’s based on the CodeIgniter php frameworks so you can develop other things and integrate smoothly. Or have twice the number of devs at your service.

  3. Michael Janke on March 13, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    And of course there is always the hybrid open-source/paid support model, as in Linux on IBM or HP hardware, with an IBM or HP support contract.

    Somewhere along the line the person-cost of maintaining and supporting the open source package has to be considered. As you’ve indicated, if you do not have a couple of people who are ready to dive head-first into the source and resolve an issue, you’ll be depending on ‘the community’, with results that will probably be both better and worse than paid enterprise support.

    For some projects I’m glad that we can grep the source. On the other hand, I also like knowing that for other projects I can call the vendor, get escalated to Tier 3 immediately, and if needed, have an engineer on site by morning.

  4. Colin on March 14, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    I think the operative words in your final paragraph are “certain tasks”. Generally speaking open source is better quality, and fixed faster when we speak of generic tasks. Programming, web servers, even firewalls, all are generally accepted now. I you have a deep specific vertical specialised need, such as a banking sytsem, or a FX/ derivative application, then certainly open source won’t have gone there.

    On a separate note, the Dash/ Mullenweg thing is not so much about open source methinks.

  5. Paul Chaney on March 15, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I word for a Web content management platform provider that’s built a proprietary system using .ASP & .NET. We offer it as SaaS.

    I see several advantages over the Joomla’s and Drupal’s of the world. First, when we roll out a new release, no download is called for. Everyone gets the enhancements and new features.

    Further, our system is built using an on-demand, component-based architecture. When we add new components to the library, every client has the opportunity to put them in play with the click of a mouse.

    Plus, we handle all the programming. The client gets a turn-key system that’s easy-to-use. No having to pay developers to upgrade, install, configure, etc.

    In my view, when you consider the hours an IT staff may have to devote to servicing open-source software, or the money invested in paying an outsourced developer each time upgrades are needed, ours seems like a very logical solution.

  6. Jose Onate on March 16, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    It is possible to get terrific support for Open Source technologies as well. For instance, our company specializes in Drupal development, and we can deploy professional sites, make adaptations to existing modules (if needed) and develop custom modules, as well as handle the hosting and answer directly for the entire thing.
    From this point of view, it is possible to get a professional installation backed by a commercial company while still taking advantage of open source technologies. We provide guarantees, support, training and custom solutions, while the software is still free and open.
    This model may not fit the needs of large corporations looking for large and complex sites, but it does offer great advantages for small-to-medium businesses.

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