TECHNICAL SUPPORT FOR OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE

July 2001

The Usual Criticism

No one ever proposes the adoption of Open Source software in a company without hearing the objection, "But who will support it?" The implication is that proprietary software is supported and that Open Source software is not.

Support for Proprietary Software

The objectors usually say that proprietary software offers "accountability," and they like to add that when something goes wrong there must be someone to blame and in the last resort someone to sue. This latter argument is often accepted at face value, although lawsuits by customers against software companies are rare, and victories are even rarer. If the software was delivered and installed by an integrator or dealer, rather than by the software company, a software suit against the integrator is unlikely to be successful, because the integrator or dealer can point out that the software, being proprietary, is totally under the control of the software company itself.

Unhappy customers do not usually come to open confrontation with integrators; the customary solution to technical difficulties is for the customer and the integrator to cooperate in some fashion, either to work around the problem, or to persuade the software company to fix the problem, if it is a bug. If what the customer really wants is a new feature in the software, only the software company itself can help.

Technical support can include asking/answering questions by e-mail and FAX, by telephone during business hours, and by telephone at any hour of the day or night. The most expensive technical support of all includes site visits to fix problems. Independent of whether or not they have support contracts, many companies will have in-house experts who are more or less familiar with the software and who will be called first. These people depend for their expertise on software documentation and training courses for the software in question.

All of this support is limited by an important factor: the source code for proprietary software is in the hands of the software company, and is unavailable for problem-solving, except to the largest customers. As a result, the in-house experts are expert only in the end-user interface of the application, and perhaps in its installation. The line of support leads back to the integrator or dealer, and from the dealer to the software company. The only opportunity for third parties to become involved is in the documentation and training, which also focus on the end-user interface. Additionally, some companies pay outside companies for access to help desks for employees to consult when using certain applications. If access to the source code were as available as access to the end-user interface, we would see many more third parties involved, and thus more choice in terms of support vendors, just as we have more choice in documentation and training vendors.

Technical Support Plans

Large companies buying important software always look at the available support plans for the software. In doing so they prove that no one except an individual user goes out and buys a software package. A business is looking for a solution to a problem, a stable value to manage variables, a known and reliable asset. Needing always to control risk, businesses see the purchase of a support plan as the best way to control of the risks of software.

How is Technical Support Different in Open Source?

In the world of proprietary software, technical support plans for corporate software come either from the authorized dealer or from the software company itself. The chain of influence goes back to the source code, kept at the top of distribution pyramid. Because so much Open Source software is freely available over the Internet, the question always comes, "But who will support it?"

One correct answer will take the breath away from any business that hears it: "Oh, from the Internet." Although it is true that there are places to go on the Internet to look for answers, and many people on the Internet willing to answer questions (including, usually, the author(s) of the software in question), businesses don't want this kind of support, even if it is free. The reason is that the questioner can never be certain when--or even whether--an answer will come. As useful as this support is to students and researchers (and even to the employees who covertly installed Apache on their company's Web servers, knowing that it was so reliable that management would never notice it), business decision-making requires more certainty.

In a free market, as opposed to a monopoly, there will be multiple suppliers of any good. Unlike the world of proprietary software, the customer need not be locked to a single vendor. When it comes to support, there are a growing number of companies that offer support for Open Source products. Some have been formed to provide support for specific software packages. Some are large companies, such as Compaq or IBM. Many more are integrators, primarily UNIX shops that have added Linux, although a number of Open Source shops have simply opened their doors because the time is ripe. And it may be that your current integrator has recently added some Open Source options.

Customization--The Unique Benefit

Having the source code for the software application adds value in two places in the distribution chain. First, it enables the integrator to serve the customer better while it enables the customer to do things for himself. Second, it restores the balance in the relationship between the integrator and the customer. When the customer has the source code, software is no longer a monopoly product, so that the customer is free to switch integrators and support suppliers. These purchases will now resemble those for office furniture and equipment--software becomes a commodity like any other and has to be sold on the basis of superior service.

Technical support is one such service, and we have seen how having source code improves technical support. But if the software business is now becoming a commodity business, with service as the differentiator between dealers, there is no service more valuable than customization. This benefit of having source code is even more valuable than the economic leverage described above. The customer now has the ability to rewrite the source code of a piece of software for any purpose, at any time, or to have someone do this for him. This ability to re-write is not just a convenience in finding and fixing bugs--the real benefit comes from being able to make software behave just as you want it to, and to make it fit your business completely, rather than twisting your business practices to fit a software package.

At What Point is the Value Added?

The free-or-negligible cost of most Open Source software means that money is freed to be spent on customization. In this sense, customization becomes a feature of the software. The proprietary model is to centralize feature development and to try to make the package appeal to as large a group of users as possible. This approach adds to the high cost of the software, increases its bulk, and makes it increasingly less satisfactory to individual customers as the one-size-fits-all design becomes more inclusive. Proprietary software customers are generally unable to drop unwanted features or decrease the size of the package.

Here, as in other ways, Open Source software inverts the business model of proprietary software. The Open Source answer to the proprietary, centrally-dictated feature model is to rely more on customization. Not only does having the source code make this easier, the Open Source distributed-development approach encourages modularity in software packages, making them easier to customize. Proprietary software companies put their customers' money into adding value by building monolithic standard packages. Open Source software leaves to you the final addition of value--making the software work the way you want it to.

Copyright © 2001 by Donald K. Rosenberg, Stromian Technologies (http://www.stromian.com)

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