All software has a true total cost of ownership (TCO). The TCO includes the sale price, any hardware and software upgrades, maintenance and technical support, and training (or re-training). Time and frustration may be hard to measure. The "opportunity cost" may also be vague: some open source software only runs in Linux, but many proprietary programs only run in Microsoft Windows or Apple Macintosh. All these components of TCO should be part of the decision to use any software:
See also: TCO Concept Map
Open source has a much lower price.
The price of an open source program is usually far less than a comparable proprietary program. Open source software doesn't have to be "no fee" but most programs are. Users can either download the software directly or pay a negligible fee to have a CD-ROM burned and shipped. Current users set up distribution networks using community Web sites and CD burners. Their motto is "share and share alike." Open source means anyone can try any program first for free. A user may eventually buy a formal copy (perhaps to get better service), but doesn't have to do so. The software will never expire or demand payment.
This may seem crazy. But open source proponents reiterate that the software industry started this way. Activists like Richard Stallman see proprietary software as an abomination. As the car analogy suggests, the open source community could eliminate the retail sale of software. Yet many people prefer to pay for open source software, for the service, quality assurance, and other value-added elements. This is especially evident with Linux distributions, which strive to offer turnkey solutions "out of the box."
By combining inexpensive or donated hardware with an open source operating system and open source programs, schools may be able to deploy computers for less money. This may create technology where none could exist (and may address some equity issues). A current user explains: "This was not really a choice between Linux and Windows, but a choice between Linux and nothing...." (survey write-in response) Many current users are attracted by the price. They continue using open source because they believe the other costs are also less than proprietary solutions.
Some software isn't compatible with open source.
Choosing any solution may foreclose on other software. This so-called opportunity cost may not be apparent for years, when the need for the other software emerges. In many cases, open source is still the minority solution. For example, the number of Linux desktops is meager compared to Microsoft Windows. By choosing a Linux desktop, a user forecloses on some software because it may never be created for or ported to Linux.
Opportunity cost is unique for each user or school, based on their needs and goals. A school doesn't have to migrate exclusively to open source and may find incremental advantages by phasing out proprietary software. Emulation may also help offset opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is highest when a specific, critical program is unavailable or incompatible. Some open source proponents downplay this cost, arguing that such specific needs are rare.
I question the need for MS software and for traditional PC's. Seniors, kids, most of the people who just sit down and want to use a computer have very basic needs: 1. Click on an icon to write or surf. 2. Save it. 3. Print it. Using proprietary software to do this is unnecessary. ... Most people really don't care about the OS. They just want to click and go. (Paul Nelson, Personal communication, December 18, 2001)
Schools may want specific, mission-critical software that's unavailable or incompatible with open source solutions (e.g. specific software for curricula or administration). Clearly, such high opportunity costs should be balanced against any advantages of open source. If more schools adopt open source solutions, the marketplace and community will shift, and new or existing solutions will become available. Finally, as more applications become Web services, the need for specific operating systems or applications will be less important, since access will be browser-based.
The total cost of open source is lower.
The other costs of open source software are potentially lower. For instance, the software typically has lower hardware requirements than proprietary alternatives. A specific solution may need fewer, older computers. Solutions usually don't depend on proprietary hardware. Software can be downloaded from the Internet quickly and conveniently. Current users claim greater reliability, security, and other TCO-friendly advantages.
Unfortunately it's not clear whether the TCO of open source is really lower. Proprietary software companies claim their TCO is lower while open source software companies argue the opposite. One long-term study of Web server deployments found a lower TCO for Linux over Microsoft Windows and Sun Solaris. (Orzech, 2002) But Microsoft alleges lower TCO with its "comprehensive, integrated, easy-to-use stack of technologies" and has its own favorable studies. (Cooper, 2003)
The salient issue is expertise. Reports vary on the cost and availability of open source technicians relative to proprietary technicians (e.g. Microsoft Certified Experts). Currently, there are more proprietary packages that include support and written guarantees. Companies like IBM and Dell are starting to offer comparable packages for open source solutions.
The issue is cloudy in education. Open source is an emerging market driven by business interests. Educators don't have the hiring or retraining flexibility of a large company, but they may get more support from the open source community. Many current users have prior experience with open source, are personally active in the community, and have colleagues or friends to rely on. They may take a personal interest in a project and invest extra time.
Technology decisionmakers should be familiar with underpaid extra work and a network of helping others. It's part of education and technology, not just open source. Unfortunately, it means current users are generally too busy supporting their solutions, stakeholders, and contacts to rigorously assess the TCO in education. They do feel that open source saves time and other resources, allowing them to deploy and support more solutions.
Current users admit that open source may require more skill to deploy and maintain, compared to turnkey proprietary solutions. But after a steep initial investment in technology and learning, the long-term costs are allegedly lower. Obviously, cutting out costly licenses saves money for other expenses (like training).
Image: Open source proponents and proprietary companies disagree on the total cost of ownership. Proponents claim that even if open source requires more expertise, the TCO is ultimately lower. Companies claim that the required expertise is daunting and the other costs of proprietary solutions are exaggerated. (These charts illustrate concepts, not actual numbers.)
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