The True Cost of Open Source

Posted at August 14, 2011

Is free always better? Tough to say. In his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, researcher Dan Ariely cites fascinating studies on the power of “free”. In one experiment, customers were somewhat more likely to purchase a piece of candy if the price were reduced from $1.00 to $0.10 (a savings of 90 cents). But if the price were reduced from $0.10 to $0 (a savings of only 10 cents), the demand exploded.

This shouldn’t be surprising, except that when you really inspect the math it turns out that free is most often used as a gimmick.  “Free” doesn’t always present the value you thought was there.

Similar examples exist in furniture stores, car showrooms, grocery stores, and infomercials (“act now and we’ll double the offer for FREE!”).

Free Software? Why Not?

We’ve all been the beneficiaries of free software. Here are several examples of modern software titles available at no up-front cost to the end user:

  • GMail
  • Evernote
  • Angry Birds (for Android)
  • WordPress
  • mySQL

This stuff spoils us. We love the flexibility, the utility, and the disposability. I currently use a free service to manage my household budget (mint.com) but if they start charging me money, or if another better service comes along, I can switch pretty easily.

In fact, some free products become so popular that they pressure all competitors in the category to lower or remove their fees altogether.  GMail and Hotmail have had this effect, as have most of the major news sites. We consumers now feel entitled to high-quality technology for free.

Creative programmers going back to the days of shareware and alt.net bulletin boards have been collaborating on fun, useful software for decades. When a project gets mature enough to be widely useful, it can be released as open source.

The Problem with Using Free Stuff in the Church

Budget-strapped churches should be at the front of the line to get free stuff, it would seem. Why spend thousands of dollars on a church Website, for example, when you can get one for “free” by using WordPress or Drupal? (Worship pastors: why pay for ProPresenter or MediaShout when you can just use an open source tool to get it done?)

Churches have complex, diverse needs when it comes to software. Many are attracted to the allure of open-source because of the perceived price tag.  Here’s a surprise: open source isn’t free. You may not be paying software licensing fees or monthly costs, but you will be paying for labor, expertise, or suffering through long nights and weekends without a geek who can make sense of this stuff.

If you don’t believe us, check out this excellent roundup of open source content management system (CMS)  providers.  The research by DeviousMedia shows that the average setup costs for any open source system can easily top $15,000. Monthly maintenance costs are usually $250 or more.  So if money was your primary factor for looking into open source, you might want to think twice!

Check out the full graphic here:

Here’s another one that, while not directly related to our discussion about Web CMS platforms, still illustrates the costs you must consider when looking at an open source product.

Before you Pay for Open Source, a Few Last Considerations

There are other things to consider when striking out on your own with an open source CMS platform as your safety net:

Lack of support: If something breaks on your open source Website, you can’t call WordPress for help. Joomla doesn’t have a phone number. Drupal doesn’t provide much support to end users. (You get the idea.) Typically, these systems are installed and configured for you by either a smart person (read: geek) or a consulting firm.  You’ll be calling this person/firm for help down the road, and that assistance will likely come at a price. Often, CMS integrators will try to get you to sign up for an ongoing service contract for support.

Requirements for ongoing maintenance: Open source, like all software, advances over time. It will become obsolete. This means you’ll need to maintain it. If you’re hosting the software on a server you own or lease, you’ll need to maintain that too.  And if you are brave enough to host it in your own building, you are now on the hook for providing high-quality, reliable connectivity to the Internet backbone, securing against hackers and malware, complying with PCI standards for eCommerce, etc. These activities normally require at least one or more full-time IT staff.

No accountability from the vendor: Under the terms of most open source licensing agreements, there is no liability on the part of the software “manufacturer” to fix or correct any problems. That’s because open source software is developed by a loose consortium of programmers, and is offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. With a vendor-backed system, on the other hand, you can demand that they stand behind their product and, as a paying customer, your words carry weight.

Forced workarounds and duct-tape solutions: Churches have found that there is no open source web CMS really built for their exact needs. In order to build all of the sophisticated features into your site, you’ll likely need to research, install, and maintain a myriad of plugins or widgets. Then you must also force them to play nicely together. These widgets include features such as the following:

  • Sermon archiving
  • Online form creation
  • Event registration
  • Online giving
  • Volunteer signups
  • Social network integration
  • Mobile device compatibility

Any church-centric CMS system worth its salt should be giving you these features (and many more) under one umbrella, for one price, backed by a standard support guarantee.  If you’re using open source with plugins, on the other hand, you’re on your own. Your current web guy might cherry-pick his favorite widgets and get them running for you, but when he leaves you may have a steep learning curve ahead of you.

Not customer-focused: Most open source products are targeted at developers, not end users. They exist to make it easier for developers/programmers to complete a task. Elegance in code-writing is celebrated; usability for the common man normally isn’t as high on the priority list.  This is probably why our studios get routine calls from church staff who are interested in an easier way to manage their site. They’ve tried open source, but it’s too cumbersome, too patched-together, and too poorly supported.

Good, ministry-focused support is expensive to provide, and you should be willing to pay something to get it.

Before you choose a church platform or vendor, you really want to invest in the long haul. Be sure that your chosen partner is focused on your success, and cares about the results you’re producing.  Here at SiteOrganic we refer to this as “producing fruit” with your online ministry, but other phrases from other vendors might work just as well. The point is, it’s not all about free. Because there is always a cost.

 

Please feel free to share your constructive experiences with open source, paid vendors, and other solutions. We’d love to have your contributions to this important conversation.

 

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