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Is there any cons of making your employees use open-source programs in your company?

I am planning to start a bussiness and I wonder why companies usually work with proprietary software, as Microsoft Word to quote the most famous one. Why do not they use Open Office (or Libre Office) etc.?

From my point of view, you can save a lot of money and help the open-source community by, for instance, giving them part of your benefits in form of donations.

I do not know any (medium-big) company that does this. Probably you could give me some examples, just to prove that this model of open-source usage/collaboration works rocks.

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Our office is standardized on Firefox and IT has emailed everyone about OpenOffice a couple times as a free alternative (that we do support). Plus, those of us doing development can choose our tools (I use vim, coworkers use Notepad++, and so on) –  Izkata Nov 23 '11 at 1:00
    
We use Eclipse, Notepad++, XMing, Putty, Oracle SQL Developer, and some other free/open solutions that don't come to mind at the moment here at work. Company is 2000-3000 employees and around a billion in revenue. –  Rig Nov 23 '11 at 2:46
    
"I do not know any (medium-big) company that does this" - companies that donate or release open source software (both spend resourced on open source)? Or companies that have a mainly or solely OSS IT policy? –  Merlyn Morgan-Graham Nov 24 '11 at 0:41
    
Be careful that many open source software projects are not free to use, especially not for a business. On the other hand, I wholly support using FOSS as much as possible/useful in business situations. –  jv42 Nov 24 '11 at 15:33
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10 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

I discourage setting a hard "open-source only" rule. There are so many criteria involved in selecting software and it is a mistake to always base a decision on just one factor.

Lets assume that you will be employing, in addition to technical programmers, several non-technical staff members. Secretaries, accountants, human resources, managers, etc. How much time will be wasted when they try to learn Linux and Open Office? Especially when you're hiring business people who have spent half their lives mastering Excel, do you really want those skills to go to waste?

All other things being equal, I would choose open source every time. All other things are never equal.

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Great point of view. –  eversor Nov 23 '11 at 21:40
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+1 - Use whatever tool is best suited for the job. Sometimes open source is a factor in this, sometimes not. –  Qwerky Nov 24 '11 at 14:01
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There is nothing wrong in using open-source software in your company, it's free, you can adapt it to your needs and sometimes it has more support or documentation than a paid one. The only thing you should have in mind is if the project is relatively new and/or the support it has, as there can be flaws or lack of help if something don't work.

In the case of LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office it is a matter of how many people use each one and the incompatibilities that appear when opening one format in another.

Eclipse IDE, Intellij IDEA (Community Edition), mySQL, Inkscape and Notepad++ are some widely known open-source projects. Check more open-source projects here.

And, at least for starting a business, well chosen open-source software is more than a good choice to alleviate your initiall budget.

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I'm a bit of an open-source fanatic myself, but I don't really see the point in keeping it a rule to use only open-source because it shouldn't be necessary. In software development, the best solutions tend to be open-source anyway, so open-source will usually win on the grounds of merit alone. Eclipse, NetBeans, Firefox, Chrome (or Chromium, rather), Apache, Subversion, Git, the list goes on. There are exceptions, for instance when you do C# on Windows, in which case Visual Studio would probably be the best solution, but generally you'll find that the open-source tools are the best pick simply because they're the best tools available, nevermind that they're open-source.

Also keep in mind that if you set an "open-source only" rule, that you've put yourself in a box for ideological or academic reasons. That may be fine and dandy if you're into that kind of thing, but realize that this will inevitably take the focus off of the primary point of any company; to make money. - I certainly don't want to discourage you from following some ideological vision, but realize that you're constraining yourself.

You shouldn't really need a specific rule for open-source to be on top, as long as you're willing to consider open-source solutions without the typical prejudices in the first place, because the open-source solutions in development simply tend to be the best.

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There is also another factor, usually ignored. Some software packages become eventually de-facto standard, even to the point of becoming part of the colloquial language: "a top-model photoshoped her picture", "you don't know anything about stackoverflow, then google it", "please tell me what you think and don't just copy-n-paste what you heard from the TV yesterday", or even older such as "hoover the floor". At the moment you start a business you'd just buy them without considering alternatives.

There is also the "Let me go Back" principle (I'm such a fanboy). Choosing an alternative solution might cause problems. (Personal true story follows) Once I had to fill an application for a company that (although was not a Microsoft only shop) had an application in MS-word with it's forms. OpenOffice corrupted the document after saving it. My application processing got delayed and almost lost the deadline. I remember having to find a friend with a windows PC in the middle of the night, when I saw my document there, I realised that it was unreadable for the HR-person on the other end... I asked the HR at some point why do they force me to use a windows-based PC and product. They were very polite to say to me that I was the first one that ever complained...

update: another story after the comment of @TrevorPowell, this time from the mid-90s. It's long and boring.

Back then we used floppy drives (1.44 MB per disk). This meant that for any file that was bigger than 1.44 Mb, you needed two disks to store it. But to get it to someone else safely you needed 4, the reason why was that FDs (acronym) used to fail a lot, so a second copy should be available. For bigger amounts of data you needed ZIP drives (100MB per drive). Now if the 1.46 file could be compressed to something less than 1.44, you magically needed only two (one and backup) disks. That's why compressing was so popular. At some point zip was bundled in Windows, at that time I needed to print a large Quark XPress file which would fit into 6 floppies compressed with... RAR. I remember when I showed up to print shops with 12 floppies as a kid, to get an offer, most shop owners threw me out: Where is the zip-drive (100MB). For them it was zip or one floppy. Few of those that would look at the floppies, stopped talking to me because they did not knew what a RAR was or believed that a R00 (extension) was a virus. Once one asked his "IT" guy to come, he knew what was rar but would not install it in his machines. You can imagine that after that, I went to a friend with a... CD-writer (very rare commodity then) and we burned the uncompressed file to a cd-rom... That was the most acceptable way to do it back then, it did the trick.

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Just by the by, I've had precisely the same experience re: OpenOffice corrupting a HR organisation's fancy Microsoft Word-based form, specifically to do with an attempt at input validation on telephone numbers. (The input validation didn't work in Microsoft Word. But OpenOffice entirely messed up the document just by opening it. In the end, I filled in my phone number by opening the document in Apple's "Pages", which seemed to ignore the document's buggy attempt at input validation on the field, and saved the form successfully). –  Trevor Powell Nov 23 '11 at 4:12
    
@TrevorPowell Now I am tempted to write more stories on the subject, I have some 90's ones... –  dimitris mistriotis Nov 23 '11 at 10:30
    
OK added another one, very verbose, redundant but wanted to get it out. –  dimitris mistriotis Nov 24 '11 at 17:10
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Like most here we use a mix. The only potential con you can run into is if you have a mixed shop and some format is incompatible with someone else's tool (ex: my spreadsheet program can't read the spreadsheet you created).

It's all about communication, as long as the company can easily share information with itself then it's a non-issue. It can become an issue if you have some people using the newest whiz-bang feature of product X, which similar product Y either screws up in presentation or doesn't understand and can't read.

Depending on how big the company is, there is a bonus to using popular tools. For example, office workers of any flavor can walk in off the street and generally don't need help using excel/word/powerpoint, if you force them into another suite you need to be prepared for a few support calls (even if the operation is the same, they'll still call you because it "looks different").

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Two things others haven't mentioned:

Interoperability with other companies or the public

This is particularly true with consulting companies, but any company could eventually have to release documents to the public.

If companies you partner with are using different products than you, then you may have incompatibilities. This is mostly going to cause a problem with office software, where you send them a presentation, a spec, a spreadsheet, and they can't open it, or it looks ugly. One way around this is for everyone to standardize on the same software, and the easiest way to make sure you have the same software is to buy the version that has massive entrenchment.

My pet peeve here: PDF are not standard or the entrenched leader, even though a lot of people think they are.

Bundled contracts

If you are working with Visual Studio, you probably bought MSDN subscriptions, which means you probably get everything else on the Microsoft stack along with it. This is as good a reason as any to use all of what you've purchased. You'll be stuck with that software forever, and have added resistance to change it, but that's one reason that companies go all-Microsoft.

I've seen similar negotiations for Flash, Flex, Adobe, and HP products (since HP has the "official" test/project management suite for Flex development).

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+1 for giving a plausible con –  eversor Nov 23 '11 at 21:36
    
@eversor: BTW, I'm a FOSS man all the way, but stranger's opinions on the net aren't nearly as useful for making an informed decision as balancing as many plausible factors as you can find :) –  Merlyn Morgan-Graham Nov 24 '11 at 0:32
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For a consume-only document format, PDF works fine. There's even quite a diversity of readers for it (as long as there's no embedded JS evilness!). For documents that need to be edited, the entrenched leader is DOC with a strong showing for DOCX. –  Donal Fellows Nov 24 '11 at 11:25
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As a startup, you are free to choose whichever platform best suits your needs. Big-medium organisations are established companies that have been around for a long time. They will have chosen what was best for them when they began, but since then will probably have had to stick with that choice, either due to contractual agreements or due to the cost of converting (in terms of re-training staff and converting existing documents over to the new format).

Also, the cost of proprietary software is often not as bad as you might think. For example, Microsoft Action Pack is about $329 a year, and offers 10 copies of Windows 7, 10 copies of Office, as well as many copies of other software products such as Windows Server, SQL Server, Sharepoint etc.

For new start-ups, they also offer various packages, some of which are free. I know there is a package that allows new startups to get Visual Studio free for 3 years.

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From my point of view for normal office applications Microsoft is the de facto standard, if you like it or not. So most of your customers, suppliers, subcontrators etc. want to exchange MS Office documents. One of our biggest customers requires reports as Word 2003 and pdf files.

For SW development it depends on your scenario, we use here a lot OSS like Eclipse, but also Visual Studio, if the project targets mainly Windows.

Needless to say, for a bigger company license costs are no big deal, maintenance costs are the issue. You have these costs also with OSS, if you do it serious.

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I love FOSS, but be honest - it's a mere child's play! There are so many small but annoying bugs in it, that's absolutely unbelievable. Take what you want: Gnome, OpenOffice, Firefox, ... it doesn't matter. Instead of improving the software, they add more and more features. It's the same silly strategy as with closed source. In fact, the question is not "either or", but "as well as". You can have both worlds on one computer on one screen. I use VirtualBox. It's great. You can have a Linux application in one window and a Windows application in an other window on the same screen. Even cut and paste between the applications works. Also hardware access is absolutely no problem. Forget dual-boot. That's not the solution. Try virtualization instead and chose the program that suites the task at hand best. A well-equipped up-to-date machine is sufficient to work fluently.

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You should drop the rant part of your answer to improve it. –  Matthieu Dec 13 '11 at 1:17
    
Funny thing, VirtualBox you mentioned is FOSS. Firefox is a mere child's play? I suppose you use IE then. –  Artem Ice Aug 7 '12 at 18:15
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Whilst there are lots of very good open source software products, the biggest negative is the amount of time crappy open source products eat up. Letting staff use random open source applications will consume vast amounts of unproductive time. Unlike commercial software, this is usually a very well hidden cost. Software the relies on plugins to make it useful is a good example of where this happens.
Mitigate this with "approved" products, and packages pre-configured for your IT environment

The other thing I have experienced it buy-in. A managers commitment to make it work is ultimately determined by how much of his B... is on the line. If he has written out a check for a million dollars, you can bet he will make sure the software is deployed and used. If he gets the software for "free", well, he's not got a lot to loose, so will be committed to it to a similar extent. It's not a good reason not to use open source, but is is something to watch out for.

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I have never wasted more time on source control than when I had to use TFS. same can be said of Sharepoint. Purchasing for software does not guarantee against crap. Crap is EVERYWHERE, closed source proprietary is just better at hiding it and masking it with funky gui. Truth of it is that for most company selling software the number one important aspect is getting paid, weather or not you are getting what you paid for is unfortunately a very low priority. –  Newtopian Nov 23 '11 at 5:23
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-1. Too judgmental. Too generic about "open source" project at large. –  Dipan Mehta Nov 23 '11 at 7:10
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A lot of the of the things you say commercial software has and open-source not is sometimes the other way around. Open source almost always tries to stick to the standards and have a very large community using/testing it, and helping each other to achieve a better product. –  talabes Nov 23 '11 at 13:00
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I am no way saying all open source is crappy - Some open source is crappy, and these eat up a lot of time, just like poor commercial software does. The poor quality products open source sw. can get into your environment much easier than commercial software as once cash in involved, so are managers and finacial accountability, so theres road blocks to commercial software that does not make the grade that do not exist for open source. As I stated, mitigate this with a robust approval process that can track the time lost to these problems. –  mattnz Nov 24 '11 at 7:26
    
Ive never encounted poorer software than Microsoft or Apple... –  NWS Nov 24 '11 at 15:51
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