Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Freeware During a Recession

Fine, we may not actually be in a recession, yet, but I don't think anyone will begrudge me should I say that the economy isn't as strong as it used to be. Because of that, many companies may start taking a harder look at using freeware to solve their business problems. I've already gone on and on about how using freeware doesn't necessarily save a company money in the long run, so I'll try not to revisit that topic... much. But how is the economy going to affect the open source movement and what will be the ongoing fallout?

First off, let me say that personally, I don't think the recession should play into the decision of using free software. You may get the code for free, but you still need people to set it up, integrate it, support it and train your employees to use it. When all is said and done, I have yet to see any conclusive study that shows using free software saves a company money in the long run just because it is free. (Though I would love to see such a study should one exist.) That should be all for the rehashing. 

What with the economy being what it is though, maybe only the accounts payable column of the budget is all that will matter and the cost of the software will be what swings the decisions. I for one would hate to run or work for a company where the right tools for the job "cost too much" causing employees aggravation and lower productivity. However, some productivity gain is better than no productivity gain and if the money really isn't there, maybe freeware will end up being the path companies take.

Let's take a look at the development side of open source. Many of the best open source initiatives are sponsored by large companies. Will those companies be able to continue paying developers to work full or even part time on software that brings in no direct revenue? If developers get laid off, will they be able to support themselves on jobs that pay them less money, if they can find them? Will they need to work longer hours making money instead of spending time on freeware initiatives?

The truth is that the open source movement was started during times of abundance. I wish I was one of the lucky software programmers that, thanks to stock options that lined my savings and retirement accounts, I could take a couple years off with little to no pay to work for the benefit of people that want free software. Yes, I am jealous and maybe a little bitter. But jealousy doesn't pay the bills and neither do positive intentions. They also don't affect my ability to write good code. I just need to get paid for it.

If there are more developers out there in my situation than there are those that that are financially independent and can code for only the warm, fuzzy feeling of living to a higher ideal, the open source movement will stall. Even in the worst case scenario I'm not saying that it will die out. But with less time devoted to them, those projects will not be able to maintain all the ground that they have made up in terms of quality and features.

This brings us back to the companies that bought into free software. 'Bought free software?' Moving on... The software that they got for free will not come in as cheap if it takes longer to get bug fixes or those bug fixes need to be made by new in house developers. If the feature set of that software falls behind the software that competitors are using, not having the advancements that the paid software later incorporates will hurt their competitiveness. Recovering from such situations will be even more costly as once again, companies will need to install and learn new tools if they need to switch back.

To me, it looks like the downturn in the economy is not going to help the open source movement in the long run. In general, if companies start using free software solely in response to a recession in order to cut costs, I think they will only be postponing larger costs until later. Maybe that's what it will take to survive for now, but it will probably end up costing more.

No comments:

Post a Comment