Most conversations I have with potential clients include this question: “If Moodle is free, what am I paying you for”. I wrote the answer to that in a previous post. I promised to explain what “free” means, how that applies to Open Source Software, and what difference it makes to a small business owner.
Open source software is that which has unencrypted code – meaning that anyone can see the source files (where the software program exists), and freely modify it. Open source software is usually free of charge, and usually comes with no guarantees that it will work as described. This might sound horrifying to you, but most of us have experienced bugs, poor support, and even fatal errors with software that was proprietary and cost a lot of money. Proprietary software has encrypted code; if you look at the program files all you’ll see are a bunch of symbols and you are not allowed by law to modify them even if you could figure out how. The free in open source refers to freedom of use, not cost. Contrary to popular belief, open source software is still “copyrighted” in most cases, which does more to protect the users than the creators. That’s a good thing.
Why would you want to use open source vs. something that was “guaranteed”? Well, here’s a perfect example. I am so used to going into the source files of Moodle and WordPress (both open source with strong communities of developers and users), to change colors, images, and strings of text that I found myself staring at my Microsoft Outlook the other day, wondering how to do the same thing. I wanted to use the “out of office assistant” but I didn’t want the subject of the email to read “Out of Office Reply”. If Outlook was an open source application, I would find that string in the code and change it to something else, such as “Thank you for contacting us”. This does not take a genius to accomplish. It’s really simple; but it is impossible to do in a proprietary application such as Outlook. Moodle and WordPress (as I have them installed with reliable hosts and responsible web companies looking after them) are far less quirky (for me) than Outlook. In my eBook, Moodle e-Learning: Questions and Simple Answers about Online Training, I tell the tale of the proprietary LMS software that promised to do everything but did nothing. I couldn’t get my $5000 back, even with an attorney! So “guarantees” mean nothing to me.
Now, you may be thinking “I don’t want to make modifications”, but you probably do want those changes made, even if you’re not the one doing it. Your web designer, for instance, makes changes to existing code all the time. When you say “I want that color to be a little brighter” or “Can you change the font to Arial?”, you are asking him to modify the code. This is relatively easy in Moodle, WordPress, Drupal, and all open source applications…it can not be done in proprietary software unless the creators built in a button to change the color or font. In order to make those “little” changes that you have probably become accustomed to (if you have a website), you would have to go through a lot bigger effort and spend a lot more money if you are modifying proprietary software. That is, if it could even be done at all.
Some software companies, like Apple and Articulate, have proprietary software as the core and offer software development kits (SDK) so that the community can create “applications” that integrate perfectly with their software. This results in some really cool stuff, as most of you know.
As a business owner, you should investigate all of your options for whatever functionality you desire. Sometimes, a proprietary application will be the best solution for your needs. Chances are, unless you are a giant business, you will have to settle for the out-of-the-box applications if you go the proprietary route. If you want more flexibility, open source will likely be your best solution in the long run. Before deciding on any application, you should obtain actual user reviews, with specific ratings on function, support, scalability, and anything else that matters to you. You can find very reliable reviews of an exhaustive list of open source software at SourceForge.net. This is where I was able to find Moodle, the LMS I strongly recommend for small and medium businesses, authors, trainers, consultants, and other entrepreneurs who want to offer online training to clients and employees.