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What are the drawbacks of open source?

I hear about the benefits of open source. What are the drawbacks, if any?

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One obvious drawback is the common challenge of using any new product -- the learning curve. This is no different for open source products than for commercial software products. When you begin using a new tool or application, there is time spent learning how to use it. That time can be frustrating and accompanied by lower productivity. Again, this is not specific to open source -- it's part of beginning to use any software product; indeed, it's part of learning any new skill.

Another drawback is what I call the "fit and finish" issue of open source. One area in which open source products often lag behind their commercial counterparts is in ease of use. It can be challenging to use open source products because they can be difficult to configure, often relying on command line input or configuration file editing. Commercial products are often easier to use. There is a benefit to this aspect of open source -- users typically end up understanding the domain better than if they had a user-friendly interface to interact with the product. Overall, however, it can be more difficult to get started with open source products.

Interestingly, something that many people think is a drawback of open source -- lack of commercial support for the product -- typically is not. In fact, it is often a strength of open source. Many people's first reaction to the community-based support model of open source is "I want one throat to choke," meaning "I want one party that I can hold responsible for fixing my problem." What they overlook is the fact that, all too often, "one throat to choke" means "single point of failure." Commercial support is often unsatisfactory, while the diffused nature of open source community support offers multiple sources of help. For a real-world example of this situation, see my Nov. 8 blog entry.

This was first published in November 2004

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