I’ve been consistently intrigued by the reasons people give for not using opensource, and by the vehemence and passion generated by all concerned. [Don't you find it amazing that from the very start, the word "opensource" has conjured up images of long-haired pinko lefty tree-huggers in tie/dye t-shirts with the compulsory cigarette-floating-in-coffee-cup? What a feat of marketing by incumbent vendors.]
Over the last decade or so, I’d formed my own opinions as to why people refused to adopt opensource, largely based on observing what I saw around me. Anecdote and hearsay, even if underpinned by experience, doth not a formal study make, but for what it’s worth, I’ll share them here.
People don’t use opensource for one (or more) of seven reasons:
- They hate the principle. Such people are uncomfortable with the concept of opensource, they tend to get hung up with the free-as-in-gratis rather than the free-as-in-freedom, and they feel that somehow the very nature of their existence gets undermined by the use of opensource. It’s unAmerican, it’s McCarthyist, it’s even (hush your mouth) Communist. And don’t you know it’s already illegal in Alaska? Where will the world go to if everyone started using free things? Opensource users are stealing from the mouths of people who work hard everywhere. The very idea! These people are hard to convince, but when convinced experience Road-To-Damascus moments. Work on them, it will pay off.
- They believe it’s insecure. [Again, a wonderful feat of marketing, excellent management of the metaphors and anchors and frames around opensource.] Quite a common response. Code that everyone can use, that anyone can change, that no one owns? Open to inspection by all? How on earth could that possibly be secure? It’s all a plot to bring down the capitalist world as we know knew it. Solvable by education.
- They’re out of their comfort zone. This tends to be the response of steady-state professionals in IT departments in many organisations. If it works, why try and fix it? Why force yourself to take responsibility for the integration, deployment and support of something, when you can pay someone else to take care of it all? They’re risk-averse and responsibility-shy; understandable, defensible, this can often be solved by education.
- They know a better way. These are people who point to the end-to-end control that Apple/Microsoft has, and how that gives people more choice and a better experience. [Yes, I've always wanted to drive my car on railtracks, ensure that the wheels fit precisely on the tracks, and go by car only to the places the railway takes me. ?!?] Solvable by education.
- They don’t know about it. These people have been cocooned away so effectively that they aren’t even aware of the options they have. Totalitarian rule. Most probably they aren’t allowed to go on to that dangerous place, the internet, where they might see strange places and maybe even catch exotic diseases. If they do have connectivity, it’s locked down to a small number of cleared sites. Mozilla is definitely not one of them, and even Sun is banned. Solvable by education.
- They can’t do what they want with it. To me, this is one of the most understandable objections. They use something that’s proprietary, they’ve built a whole pile of things around the proprietary thing, and now they can’t function without it. It’s hard to replicate elsewhere or using anything else. It’s not just the applications, you have to think about the processes, the training, everything. I almost buy this. Almost. But all you need to do is imagine you are in a merger or takeover, and all this changes. There is an imperative to move, and all the excuses disappear. So while I have sympathy for this view, I am aware of how fragile it really is. The best way to solve this one is to simulate a merger or takeover involving a firm that does not use what you’re using.
- The move represents serious operational risk. Puh-leese. Find the remaining deckchairs on the Titanic, and get them on it. They will happily move them around until iceberg time.
The out-of-comfort-zone concept is well described here, by chuqui, in a post written exactly two years ago. I guess for many of you all this is too anecdotal, too ephemeral. What you hanker after is facts. Good solid academic research on why people don’t use opensource.
This is your lucky day, because that’s precisely what this post is leading on to. There’s an intriguing article on the subject in the latest issue of First Monday, my favourite peer-reviewed webzine. Here it is:
The study makes a number of general yet interesting points, amongst them:
- the likelihood of pro-innovation bias in innovation studies
- the fact that most studies focus on the adoption of innovation rather than reasons for not doing so
- the understanding that non-adoption is not the mirror image of adoption.
The meat of the study is really worth getting into. The authors looked at a case study around the Belgian Federal Public Service Economy, a public unit that looked at OpenOffice but then decided to stay with Microsoft Office as their principal office toolset. Interestingly,
….the organisation opted for a hybrid approach, in which OpenOffice.org is installed on users’ workstations as a document convertor. This ensures that users can correctly open ODF documents on their workstations. OpenOffice.org is, however, not supported by the IT department.
So the “organisation” went for a solution that is, at least in part, “not supported by the IT department”. The plot thickens.
It’s a very interesting case study. There were three key projects:
- introduction of a target platform for business critical application development
- selection of a platform for business intelligence
- standardisation of software offering Office-style functionality
Everything was set up right for the decision to go opensource. The European Commission had mandated that an ISO standard had to be used for exchanging documents by September 2009, and Open Document Format (ODF) was the only approved ISO standard. Belgian public sector companies were under pressure to save costs, and this increased the bias towards OpenOffice. And the manager in charge was a known sympathiser.
Just in case this wasn’t enough, the FPS Justice and the Brussels Public Administration, two similar public sector organisations in Brussels, had just opted for OpenOffice.
So let me repeat. Public sector organisation. In Brussels, the heartland of European bureaucracy. Needing to reduce costs. Needing to move to ODF. Led by a sympathiser. Surrounded by OpenOffice adopters.
With me so far? I guess so. Until I tell you what they did. They went for Microsoft Office. With the ODF plugin developed by Sun.
As I said, interesting case study.
Three things stood out for me. One, the decision making process appeared flawed. Project 2, the decision to go for a specific business intelligence platform, was “guided by the fact that [the platform] offers powerful integration with Microsoft Office”. How could this decision be taken before the decision to choose between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office?
Two, the decision appeared to be driven by heavy users rather than the regular users. The heavy users were the ones who carried out serious data-intensive activities, and had built a plethora of tools using the development platform around Microsoft Office. These tools were hard to price in terms of migration costs, and there was a lot of fear and doubt related to conversion and compatibility in general.
Three, no detailed TCO analysis had been made. I quote:
It should be noted, however, that some factors obscured the actual level of [these] potential cost savings. First, some of the licences for Microsoft Office had already been purchased, and were considered to be sunk costs by the FPS Economy. Second, our informants indicated that the TCO for OpenOffice.org could not be estimated precisely, due to the uncertainty regarding the cost of the conversion of applications and macros. Hence, during the project, no detailed TCO analysis was made.
But you know what? All that pales into insignificance when you read the next line:
This is consistent with the results of previous studies that showed that organisations found it difficult to assess the TCO of OpenOffice.org, even after having performed the migration (COSPA, 2005; Drozdik, etal, 2005, Russo, et al, 2003; Ven, et al, 2007a, b; Wichmann, 2002)
Wow. People have carried out studies that prove that it is hard to work out the TCO for OpenOffice.org. Hmmmm. Anyone have meaningful TCOs for the alternatives?