Learning about why people don’t adopt opensource

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

Reasons for the non-adoption of OpenOffice.org in a data-intensive public administration

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?

23 thoughts on “Learning about why people don’t adopt opensource”

  1. Hi JP,

    Have read this and other recent blogposts about open source. In the broadcast-production sector, Windows and Mac rule. Some parts of the production chain at a few radio/TV stations I have visited have been written in Linux and operate perfectly. I have also met IT/Production directors at big stations who would like to embrace open source but cannot sell the idea to CFO’s because

    – there is nothing like a complete solution for their workflow that can handle media rich (read huge video files) without falling over.

    – This means that they can’t provide an accurate estimate of when they could roll out and start training.

    – In some areas of Africa and Asia where I work, people are using “free” software to solve their problems (radio stations running iTunes to play out music and their own tracks). If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

    – Several open source projects are a bit like a Landrover with three wheels. They look great, seem ready for the rough roads, but fall over because their not finished (lack of documentation, for instance).

    So in my sector, being forced to go open source without the right level of support (and understanding of the business) would force stations off the air….or at least into a period of uncertainty even worse than they have now.

  2. Wow. Fascinating to see the thinking processes of a big, regulated entity :)

    A variant of the ‘out of my comfort zone’ reason for not adopting open source is the belief that it means losing the legal and financial protection provided by a big, friendly vendor. Which seems to me like wanting your insurance company to build your car.

  3. I’m going to assume OpenOffice has improved a lot since I last saw it, because it was terrible.

    There was a student edition of Microsft Office long ago that was usable before its dead weight became intolerable. It lives on, nevertheless.

    But putting these two ducks side by side is not a great way to push love for open source.

  4. I’ve been using nothing but OpenOffice since 3.0 came out, and have had very few problems. Some, yes, but manageable.

  5. I enjoyed the first part of this post immensely.

    The second part didn’t initially chime with me as I can’t get excited about MS Office (v) Open Office. I use neither, tending to use the Web, Wikis, or edit HTML in text editors. On reflection it is an excellent example of the true costs of imposing one size fits all for what should be very personal tools. I particularly resent the way a company, or in this case a public entity pays a supplier for software many people never use, making it appear cheaper per-seat for them, and leading to an assumption that everyone uses it. Gratis is often the strongest form of lockin.

  6. Im not sure if youre suggesting the 7 reasons for not using *any* opensource software at all or the reasons you might have on a case by case basis. If we’re talking about the latter there is another reason I would propose to add: The commercial offering is “better”. Theres prejudice and religion on both sides of the open source debate but there are often occaisions where the open-source alternative to established commercial offering are not as feature-rich, or easy to use or (perhaps) as well integrated. Theres no guarantee that an open source product will always be better than a commercial on (as you have aluded to in your 3 rules of when to use open source / buy / build)

  7. Paul, while you may not use either MS Office or OpenOffice, that does not mean the issue goes away.

    As civic services extend their use of ICT, we’re going into very very murky waters. We land up needing excel to look at school holiday dates, and nonsense like that. Unless we’re careful, there will come a point where people who don’t use proprietary packages land up being disenfranchised from a great segment of society, especially the public sector. This is dangerous.

  8. As you know, I did some work on this in 2006. At the time there were some technical showstoppers preventing universal adoption of linux as a desktop operating system in a capital markets organization, but the adoption of OpenOffice was at least a technical possibility.

    My detailed work demonstrated that the payback period for the move to OpenOffice would be more than three years, partly because of the large number of existing Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that were in daily use. Even allowing a very small amount of time for testing the converted OpenOpen Calc document for compatibility it would have cost a great deal to make the move. Still worth doing, though, if you are prepared to take a multi-year punt.

    My recommendation was that the organization started to prepare itself to make the move to OpenOffice at the end of the next Microsoft Enterprise Agreement cycle by starting to use OpenOffice document format for all new documents, with OpenOffice software as an user option. This would have been a low-cost decision that would have made a wholesale migration very much cheaper at the end of the cycle. Too much common sense, I guess, since my recommendation was not adopted.

    Where am I going with this? The conclusion I came to was that there was a significant upward pressure on Microsoft’s license prices due to the migration costs I identified. If I could do the analysis then surely they could too. I predicted that discounts would be slashed during the next Enterprise Agreement negotiations and indeed they were – by a lot. The procurement department’s reaction was to ask the group’s operating entities to use *more* Microsoft licenses so they could argue for a greater volume discount.

    I kid you not.

  9. JP
    I’ll try OpenOffice 3. Last time I used it I wasn’t happy with it (Early version 2). It may have been me (adapting to new system).

    On switching organisations to opensource I think the comment above about Excel will go to the nub in a lot of organisations. For finance depts Excel is their killer app and swiss army knife of analysis. It’d be a lot of work to switch people away from it.

    And god only knows how many skunkworks access databases you’d find if you looked around organisations.

    Then there is all the real serious work done in Powerpoint :-)

    Be interested in a TCO study of OpenOffice switch in a real organisation.


  10. I agree with Paul that we shouldn’t get too hung-up on MSO vs. OOo.
    While I’ve been using OOo for a few years now and consider it largely superior to MSO, it’s dangerous to regard OOo as a typical open-source project. (In fact, there is no such thing as a typical FOSS project.)

    While most objections to adopting FOSS could be countered through education, the problem is getting that message across. Many (most?) people simply don’t have the motivation and/or aren’t open-minded enough to put some effort into understanding theses issues.

    To be fair, Jonathan does have a point; many open-source products aren’t as polished as they should be* – however, the same is true of many proprietary products.

    * cf. Phil Whitehouse‘s coverage

  11. JP,

    Great post. Would have to say though that there are many people, mostly driven by reason #1, who will likely never be convinced. These are, largely, the antibodies-in-residence of the incumbent vendor’s immune system. A class of blinkered technology advocate, whose chemical dependence-like relationship with a vendor drives them to attempt to derail any usage of open source.

    This becomes a particular problem if such people are able to effect strategy at a senior level. As their autoimmune behaviour combined with vendor FUD and pricing tactics is a force to be reckoned with. A migration to an open source widget suddenly becomes much harder to sell to the business, when the pricing for your current proprietary widget is slashed as a result of the vendor becoming aware of the proposed migration…

    A few thoughts as to the challenge:

    Just as with the need to rush children past the dessert trolley in a restaurant, management need to be safely escorted past “zero acquisition costs” in order that they can consume some detail on the longer term and sustainable benefits of open source. The real value, and not the Mermaid of the Open Source Software Seas.

    In a large organisation a holistic approach is going to be required. With architects, engineers, procurement and legal all doing their part to make adoption easy, natural and business as usual. With clear strategy being set at a senior level, such that those whose loyalty lies with a vendor are left in no doubt, and will find it harder to mask any autoimmune behaviour.

  12. There is no moral imperative to adopt FOSS which is often the implication by many. It’s often the people promoting FOSS who are its biggest barriers to adoption. People want MS to adopt standards but then oppose them when they try and do that. Things like Codeplex and the Port25 Team at MS are genuine attempts at promoting Open Source!

  13. Vijay, my interests in FOSS are based more on economic imperatives than anything else. You’ve probably heard my rule of thumb:

    If the problem is generic, go to the opensource community, they’re likely to have solved it better than anyone else.

    If the problem is specific to a market segment, go commercial. Someone is likely to have seen the market opportunity and invested.

    If the problem is unique to your organisation, you’d better solve it yourself. Because no one else will.

    It’s a matter of incentives and market opportunities.

    Problems shift over time from unique to segment-specific to general. While all this is happening, the market also shifts. Opensource is moving up the stack.

    There’s always room for commercial. There are always people willing to pay a price for the end to end control.

    It’s about economics, about what makes sense. To say that opensource is evil is as stupid as saying that Microsoft or Apple is evil. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    And anyway I am a believer in Free as in Freedom, not Free as in Gratis. It used to be OSS; I am always bemused by how it became FL/OSS. That’s like New Orleans citizens becoming “refugees” during Katrina.

  14. Truly interesting discussion, and very prescient. I think there was a very good piece recently on the problem of Asterisks adoption that made the point that the adoption curve was significantly impacted by the need to skill up for what was effectively a once off deployment, a commitment that was not attractive to the developer. I don’t think you have any chance of experiencing the same problem with Ribbit, not with Don over there :)

  15. A late comment, but one I want to make:

    Whatever happened to the ‘personal’ in PC?

    Isn’t the problem here one of how people aren’t empowered to use the right tools for their job (something which they usually understand better than those who don’t do it)? I wholeheartedly support organisations enforcing information exchange formats (preferably open ones), but find it frustrating that they also try to choose my software, which rarely fits my needs. I see this everywhere – ‘we will use MS Office’ instead of ‘we will exchange documents in ODF’.

    There are of course counter arguments relating to the support costs of heterogeneous environments, however I firmly believe that local ecosystems can provide immediate and cost effective support more efficiently than centralised, outsourced helpdesks backed by too few overworked experts, especially if those local ecosystems are allowed and encouraged to communicate ideas and solutions, something which a commercial, locked-down world cannot always provide.

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.