Make A Bottom Line Case

I’ve read an increasing number of articles and blogs suggesting that a sluggish economy is just what the open source community needs for further adoption of their software. What many fail to grasp is that no matter how “free” it may be, it isn’t without costs.

The more economically-naive look at the initial outlay and presume that’s the only investment required. They don’t look at the costs employers to retrain employees to use new software, let alone the loss of productivity that occurs while getting up to speed in a new environment.

By way of analogy, it’s a lot like companies that give away or cut prices on one item to sell you other things. Get a free cell phone, get locked into a two-year commitment. Get a free razor, spend $20 a month on blades. Get a cheaper game system, pay more for games. Your initial cost of entry may not be very high, but in the long term you may pay a lot more than if you’d paid more upfront.

Software can be like that even if it’s not offered with service deals. Especially if it’s not offered with service deals. That leaves companies in the position of sorting things out on their own. That involves manpower, that involves training, that involves loss of productivity for some period of time. Those are costs, and those costs can exceed the value of the “free” software many times over when compared to proprietary software.

Many companies have made their transition to open source where it’s seamless, like in servers. They made such transitions long before the capital crisis.

Companies don’t make radical changes during times of crisis or uncertainty. They stand pat. In a recessionary environment (and we’re technically NOT in recession) or in a sluggish economy (I’ll take 3% growth) they keep their powder dry. That’s one of the self-fulfilling prophecies or vicious circles that leads to sluggish economies and recessions. Ironically, moves made to adjust for such slow downs tend to be reactionary (rather than precautionary) and post facto.

I wish I could share the optimism of those who think negative changes in the macroeconomy will be positive for open source adoption, but I know changes of the magnitude of converting a company’s entire computing infrastructure are based — justifiably — on grounds that are more direct to their own situations (not every company is affected by the over all economy to the same degree). This is why it’s futile to get companies and individuals to participate in alternative energy without tax breaks and other incentives. One of the best and most effective ads I’ve seen in a long time along those lines is the granola tree-hugging IBM ad in which the executive quickly changes his tune about energy efficient servers when the young lady makes the point that those will save the company 40% in energy costs. Enter singing cartoon animals, the fantasyworld can be achieved in reality.

If you can put a figure on something, you will do a lot to convince people that change has a reward. Then you can sell them on it.

But if you only give them the up-front cost, you’re not making a sound and financially appealing case to them. They need to know that they won’t lose any function from what they’re already using; in some cases, open source solutions meet that criterion but in too many it doesn’t. They need to know there will be no disruption in transition; they’ve already spent a lot of money training employees to use something, they’re losing that investment if it doesn’t relate 1:1 with what you’re suggesting they use instead. They need to be able to quantify where these changes will pay off, whether it’s immediately (unlikely) or down the road (possibly); they already know where they stand with what they have and most of them are happy with it.

Their licenses are already paid for. They don’t devalue — in fact, the more use they get out of each license, the more they’ve paid for themselves. That can be measured not only in the length of time they hold their licenses (I’ve seen businesses still using NT 4x and OS/2) but also in the familiarity and comfort of their employees who use it. The more comfortable their employees are using it, the more productive they are. And that’s what software means to employers.

You’re not going to win many employers over with crackpot anti-Windows hysteria that prevails among those who shout the loudest about these things. Whether they share your opinions, they’re oriented to results and not to wisecracks, cheap shots, and open source zealotry.

Consider companies who are already involved in open source, especially with their own software products. Sun has deals with Microsoft. Novell has deals with Microsoft. HP has deals with Microsoft. IBM has deals with Microsoft. For all their competitive axes to grind, they understand cooperation is essential to market share. Why then do the pro-GPL types who push cooperation on one level object to it on any other?

I think the silliest thing I read in all of these bleatings about how open source can take off in this downturn (despite strong earnings from Intel, IBM, et al) was a suggestion that Linux fanboys pass the hat and start advertising in the same way Apple and Microsoft have. I think Red Hat, Novell, and Oracle already do that. So does Canonical to some degree, and they’ve done product placement in box stores. It’s not that people don’t know Linux is available, it’s that they don’t care — they have something that works, that they understand (some really do), and they have no reason to change either on a personal level or in their companies.

It’s a lot easier to commoditize an entire product line, as Microsoft and Apple do, than bits and pieces; the fragmentation of what constitutes Linux in particular doesn’t lend itself well to advertising unless you have something to offer in the form of service (as Red Hat, Novell, Oracle, and Canonical do). And if you’re results-oriented in your advertising (think of the HP ads showing celebrities and how they use their computers), you’ll end up advertising for companies whose open source offerings allow users to get stuff done: Sun’s Open Office, Mozilla’s Firefox — which will run on closed source operating systems at least as easily (if not better) than on Linux. Face it, nobody is going to get sucked into an ad that talks about how many fucking window managers you can try out in a crazy one or two night Mountain Dew binge.

For better or worse, open source will not fare much better during a slow down than any other software. The sluggishness of the economy will cause more companies to not make radical changes if they make changes at all — aside from holding back on anything until they have a clearer picture and assurances that the sky’s not falling. Open source advocates have to be able to quantify where these kinds of choices affect bottom lines while at the same time offering assurances that changing from licensed software backed by a company with its own bottom line (the word accountability comes into play here) won’t leave users in a holding pattern. Accountability is a valuable asset.

Get to the value beyond initial costs. Companies demand to know that, they need to know that. Show comparable — no, you really have to show greater — value and measures of accountability they already have.

Do open source advocates have any clear answers yet?

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