Oliver Roick

Open Source Is Not Free

Open-source software is often free. Using it is not.

Almost all open-source software is free, available from package registries, ready for immediate use. Non-technical leaders — the donors in a non-profit organization’s board or the C-level executives in businesses — often confuse that with getting a product for a low budget. Products built using open-source software are rarely cheap and never free.

With a few exceptions, open-source software is released as libraries or frameworks — they do one thing and do it well. Open-source libraries simplify the process of building products as they solve everyday problems in a re-usable way. But they are not polished, user-friendly software; they are not a product. You can use open-source libraries to build a product. To build a product, you need engineers, product people, computers, and in most cases, an office.

Once the product is built, it needs to be maintained. Users will find bugs that need fixing. Security holes need to be patched. The product probably doesn’t nail its intended use case the first time, so features need to be changed or removed, and new ones will be added. Again, you need engineers, product people, computers, and in most cases, an office.

It’s 2020 — the product probably won’t be pressed on a DVD and posted to customers. You need infrastructure: Domains, usually multiple servers, a CDN, databases, or file storage. Much of the infrastructure will be duplicated as you’ll want test, staging, and production environments.

Finally, a smooth software development process needs ancillary infrastructure, anything needed to create and maintain the product, such as a code repository, bug tracker, ticketing systems, or monitoring. There are usually basic free versions available for all of this. As a team grows, you’ll need additional seats or want premium features.

All of this costs money. People’s time and infrastructure are the two biggest cost factors when building products – and they can’t be replaced by software. Free, open-source software will make product development a lot easier but only marginally cheaper. Open-source sets you free from the need to solve common problems that have been resolved many times before.

You can spend time on your use case’s real issues and build a better product.

This is the value of open-source software.