In the early days of computing, software was almost entirely proprietary. That’s because few people had access to the hardware needed to compile and develop code.
As a result, businesses—who were the only ones with the requisite hardware—would purpose-build whatever software they needed. And if their software was especially useful, they might license it to others.
Today, however, that’s no longer the case. The democratization of computing has unleashed the skills of programmers around the world.
And instead of creating a massive new pile of proprietary software, it resulted in something different—a global library of open-source software. Today, an estimated 90% of companies use open-source software.
It’s a software distribution model that comes with some significant advantages over proprietary software. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, though. To elaborate, here are the main advantages and disadvantages of open-source software.
Main Advantages of Open-Source Software
There are a variety of reasons that businesses have come to rely so heavily upon open-source software. Here are the most important advantages it has to offer.
1) Low or No Cost
Perhaps the most significant advantage of open-source software is that it’s typically free. That’s because the very nature of open-source licenses means that anyone can modify or distribute the code they cover.
There’s not much financial incentive to try and charge for a product that someone else might simply give away for free. That keeps the total cost of ownership of open-source software low—which businesses love.
2) Source Code Is Open for Everyone To See or Modify
The term open source refers to the idea that anyone can study the underlying code of a given software product and make changes to it as they see fit.
Anyone interested in a given project can collaborate with its developers and contribute code. Or, they can fork the project to take it in a new direction that suits their specific needs.
3) Crowd-sourced Security
Since open-source software offers maximum code transparency, it also tends to be quite secure. With so many eyes poring over the codebase of a given open-source project, it’s harder for security flaws and bugs to escape notice.
That stands in sharp contrast to proprietary software, where bugs and flaws may remain in the code for years, waiting for an attacker to find and exploit them.
4) Great Support From Online Communities
In many cases, open-source projects have large and committed online communities devoted to the use and development of the underlying software.
Those communities are excellent places to find support and discuss things like feature requests and software enhancements.
Plus, since they provide direct access to the developers behind a project, open-source communities offer a faster path from bug reports to bug fixes. That’s something that the companies behind most proprietary software couldn’t hope to match.
5) No Vendor Lock-in
One of the major downsides of proprietary software is that once you’ve purchased one piece of software from a specific vendor, it’s no longer financially feasible to switch to another vendor.
That often means businesses get stuck buying new software that may not be the best solution simply because it’s compatible with their existing technology stack.
With open-source software, no such vendor lock-in is possible. Open-source users can switch between software with ease, with no major financial penalty for doing so.
6) Flexibility and Scalability
Open-source software also tends to offer flexibility and scalability that proprietary software solutions do not. For example, a business can hire its own developers to add features to open-source software.
Or, they can modify the software to scale up in ways not contemplated by its original developers. With proprietary software, businesses are beholden to the decisions of the vendor, who may have little interest in making the changes that a single customer requests.
7) Is Easily Integrated With Other Open-Source Software
Another major benefit of open-source software is that it’s easy to integrate it with other open-source libraries and platforms.
That’s because most open-source developers rely on shared libraries and common programming languages in almost everything they do.
That makes it easier to integrate multiple open-source components than it ever could be to connect even two pieces of proprietary software from different vendors.
8) Continuous Development of New Features by the Community
As mentioned earlier, it’s quite common for open-source projects to have large and active communities centered on their use and development.
Those communities also tend to speed up the pipeline for new features and enhancements to the software they’re focused on.
It’s not unusual for a developer or a group of developers to engage in feature request discussions and work directly with users to craft a new feature that satisfies their needs.
Main Disadvantages of Open-Source Software
Although there’s plenty to like about open-source software, it’s no panacea. There are some significant disadvantages that open-source users should know about and factor into their decision-making.
1) Usually Not as User-friendly as Paid Software
Unlike commercial software, most open-source software represents the vision of either a single developer or a small tight-knit team.
Sometimes, those developers build open-source software to suit their needs and not the needs of the general public.
Unfortunately, that can often produce a user experience that’s perfectly adequate for a developer, but that would leave a layman lost, confused, or worse. By comparison, most proprietary software makes the user experience a priority—their users pay the bills, after all.
2) No Dedicated Support Like Paid Software
Most paid software comes with multiple support options, or at least the possibility of paid on-demand direct support when required.
Open-source software has no analog for that. While it’s often possible to get answers to questions or find solutions within a project’s online community, there’s nobody obligated to help. In a business environment, that’s often an operational risk that’s not worth taking.
3) It’s More Complicated To Install and Configure Compared To Paid Solutions
When proprietary software developers design a product, they do so with the end user in mind. That begins with the installation process. That’s why most proprietary software packages feature installers that automate their setup and basic configuration.
Open-source software, by contrast, often requires plenty of manual setup and configuration and isn’t always geared toward novice users.
4) Compatibility Issues With Hardware
Open-source developers tend to build software that’s hardware agnostic. That means they’re only concerned with whether the software itself functions on a generic hardware platform. As a result, end users have to obtain, install, and test any specific hardware drivers their particular infrastructure requires.
In many instances, there are no open-source equivalents for certain proprietary hardware drivers. And since open-source developers have no visibility into the code of such proprietary drivers, they can only guess at how to interact with them programmatically. That can lead to code conflicts and compatibility issues that don’t have clear solutions.
5) Hidden Costs
Even though most open-source software’s free to obtain, that doesn’t mean it has no cost of ownership. For one thing, open-source software tends to follow a much faster update and release schedule than proprietary software. That increases the costs associated with keeping the software up to date and addressing any problems that arise with each update.
Also, open-source software’s lack of direct support options often means users must spend more of their time fixing issues or addressing shortcomings in the software.
Sometimes that requires hiring a developer to make necessary alterations. Other times, it means having IT personnel on-call to find solutions when problems arise.
This is a primary reason why some proprietary software development companies like IBM have purchased popular open-source software like Red Hat Linux. It’s because they’ve realized that they can make a small fortune offering paid support packages for software that’s ostensibly free to use.
6) Security Weaknesses Are Easier To Find
Having numerous developers, programmers, and users poring over the code of an open-source project does tend to yield code that’s more secure than proprietary equivalents.
The trouble is that a potential attacker can review that same code to find vulnerabilities others may have missed. In other words, open-source software can’t rely on security through obscurity to prevent attackers from finding bugs to exploit.
On top of that, most open-source projects rely on shared code from earlier open-source projects to operate. That means that an attacker that finds a vulnerability in a single project could use it against any number of that project’s descendants.
In September of 2022, that exact scenario played out when a 15-year-old vulnerability in an open-source Python programming library left more than 350,000 other open-source projects at risk of exploitation.
7) The Open-source Software You Use Might Not Be Available in the Future
The last big disadvantage associated with open-source software is that there’s never any guarantee of its longevity. To wit: an open-source developer is free to remove any software library they’ve created at any time and for any reason.
That can leave users in the unenviable position of having to assume the costs of any continuing maintenance and development of the projects they depend on.
Or, in an even more dire situation, the removal of an open-source library can have a cascade effect that breaks other software that relies upon it.
The most notorious example of that effect in action happened in 2016 when 28-year-old programmer Azer Koçulu deleted a seemingly-innocuous 11 lines of code in one of his open-source repositories.
Shortly after, chaos ensued, and part of the global internet came to a standstill. It stands as a prescient reminder that open-source software is inherently ephemeral and is used at the end user’s own risk.
The Bottom Line
The key takeaway here is that open-source software comes with some major advantages relative to proprietary alternatives. That’s a big reason why the use of open-source software has skyrocketed in recent years.
And while there are some shortcomings that users shouldn’t ignore, it’s clear that open-source software has a well-earned place in the modern digital landscape.
It’s also evident that open-source software will continue to play a big role in helping individuals and businesses get what they need out of their computing infrastructure—and that’s not bad for software that’s mostly free to use.