Open Source Changes the Software Acquisition Process

The option for FOSS affects business application choice--for more than dollar reasons.

I used to own a computer store, back in the days when an Intel 80386 was the standard for business PCs and geeks would sigh wistfully, wishing they could afford a '486. I loved helping people pick out a computer system that was right for them, and consulting with the business owners to choose the software that was best for their business (or, occasionally, for personal use). But a repeated irritation were the people who were so sure that I wanted to screw them out of every penny I could that they "protected" themselves by presenting requirements that — I knew as a professional — were actually limitations. Yet, because I was selling them a solution based on my expertise, I couldn't be trusted.

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS]

The most annoying incident was a guy who ran a contracting business, just him and his wife; they lived about a mile from my store in Stonington, Maine. I'll call him Jim, because I think that was his name. (Another customer with a bigger business sniffed, "Anyone with a pick-up truck and a ladder can call himself a contracter," but there were plenty of small businesses like Jim and I made a decent living, for a while, by serving them.) Jim was on a tight budget, so he was going to put off buying some things he wanted, such as a CAD program and a printer. Yet he wanted to install extra RAM to support the CAD program, so that wouldn't have to be added when he could afford the software. I pointed out that the RAM price was almost identical to the printer I was recommending (it's scary that I remember it: about $250), and that his bid did include an accounting program. Wouldn't it make more sense to enable his wife to print invoices today, and get the CAD and any required hardware upgrades when he was ready for that purchase?

Jim looked at me as though I had suggested putting Poly-Glycoat on the computer or painting his pickup truck pastel pink. Did he think I made more money on the RAM?! I never did figure it out. Jim ended up buying his new computer from the guy in Ellsworth, 30 miles away, who I knew had awful service. I saw the bid: It said, "$30, accounting software" and didn't even identify which application. I figured they deserved each other.

Given the open source nature of this blog, you might be expecting that anecdote to lead into a lesson like, "Today, Jim could equip his computer with any application he wants, for free!" And surely he could, though Jim still would require a major upgrade for me to be comfortable labeling him as a fool.

But that's not today's lesson, or at least it isn't the annoyance I want to rant about.

Several weeks ago, I attended a non-technology conference. (How non-technology? People took notes on paper. There was no WiFi in the meeting rooms. And nobody seemed to mind.) It was a great conference, with people who shared common problems explaining different ways to bring their businesses online. These business professionals know their industry far better than I ever will, but when it comes to technology choices they act the same way Jim did.

None of us want to trust vendors who have, after all, a vested interest in selling us their solution. So businesspeople engage in expertise exchange ("What do you use? How do you like it?") and social networking ("My cousin's brother found someone he liked..."), and they ask for product recommendations from their peers. When open source isn't part of the package, maybe that makes sense, because a lot of business solutions do come from a software vendor, whether downloaded from the website or from a friendly salesperson. If you're trying to decide whether QuickBooks is a good choice for your business or if you need a more expensive application, endorsements from people whom you trust makes a big difference. (As I should know, considering how many product reviews I've written and how often I get e-mail from individuals, years later, asking me for advice.)

However, open source throws off that whole old-style recommendation process — or perhaps it shows off how poorly people make technology decisions. Because when you're talking about a tech solution that's going to require any amount of professional expertise — such as the websites and e-commerce systems and content management systems (CMSs) my new friends were discussing — the business owner shouldn't be choosing the software. The business owner should choose the professional whom they can trust to pick the technologies the company actually needs.

Let me get a little more specific. During the conference, a few people were super gung-ho about Drupal for their websites, and after two days several people had decided to adopt it, too. The primary reason was, "Hey, it's free!" Uh, folks? I pointed out. It's not the only one that's free. Plus, free shouldn't be the deciding factor, especially since you'll still have to think about customization and maintenance and hosting. And just because Drupal might work for your buddy's site doesn't mean it's the best solution for yours.

I have nothing against Drupal (though for transparency's sake I should mention that I do have a tropism towards Plone); my objection was to any non-techie choosing a CMS he was not going to personally install and support. (Believe me, these folks weren't going to do that.) These businesses were about to put themselves in the position of telling their plumbers which tools to use and instructing the carpenters what grade of wood to use for the interior walls. I wanted to throttle them, or at least to advise them to rethink how their "recommendation" system was working. I recognize that they were applying the useful social network recommendations of trust that worked before... but it's no longer quite so relevant, especially in the context of open source.

These desperately non-technical people should look for a website designer/developer who's an subject matter expert, who could say, "Look at the websites I've done for other people in your industry. Do you like this style? Do you need these features? Here's some of the issues that commonly come up. Let's talk about what you need before we start designing much less deciding which tool's best for you." Then the small business owner should let the professional choose the right tool for this job, based on the designer/developers' own technical competency and suitability to task. That might be Drupal but it could be anything else. It's copacetic for the business owner to ask the designer about Drupal, by all means, if all the people you met at the last industry conference insisted it was the best thing since instant hot chocolate. But look for website development expertise rather than try to match a tool you don't know how to choose.

This is, of course, an old problem. I remember similar frustrations back when I was active in computer consulting circles, when value-added resellers would be driven nuts by people who would come in with a firm insistence that their application ought to be written in dBase or 1-2-3 macros or heavens-knew-what, because that's what their brother-in-law recommended. And certainly there are times you need to find an expert in a specific technology (such as "The old programmer disappeared, and nobody knows how to fix anything; it's written in Drupal, do you know that...?").

But I think that open source is actually making life a bit more difficult for these business owners rather than simplifying life for them. Technology is already too overwhelming, with too many choices. People who are non-technical can so easily be intimidated by geeky stuff (and geeky people like you and me, who speak in unfamiliar jargon) that they grasp at answers based on the things they do trust, such as people with businesses very much like their own. The proprietary vendors are generally aware of this and build entire marketing teams to address the needs of those businesses (see above site downloads, pretty shrinkwrap boxes with lots of reassuring text, and sales teams). I'm not saying that every open source project ought to turn all of its attention to attracting others (particularly newbies). However, open source projects that are ordinarily employed as part of a larger solution (a CMS is a perfect example) really ought to have resource pages devoted to finding professionals that have expertise in industry domains (higher education, manufacturing, publishing, whatever), not just in the technology itself.

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