Open Source vs Proprietary online services

I’m getting it in the neck from two sides at the moment. One or two teachers who identify with the Open Source movement have passed comments suggesting that our online services Paperless School and Yacapaca are somehow morally inferior because we are a commercial company. Meanwhile, colleagues in online publishing are looking askance because we’ve publicly supported Moodle, the Open Source VLE.

Both are completely misguided in my opinion. Let’s start by debunking a couple of myths…

Open source is not free
You don’t have to pay for Open Source software, but you do have to install it, host it and support its users. In practice, support is the major cost of any piece of complex software. So, who’s doing the supporting? If it’s a paid technician or specialised support company, the cost is overt. Suppose it’s the enthusiastic teacher who sponsored the software into the school? They are on salary, and would be putting their energies elsewhere if not doing this. The total cost may still be lower than with a commercial alternative, but you can’t take this for granted. [Update: the going rate for Moodle support is &pound 600/yr, I’m told.]

Open source is not morally superior
If you are a teacher, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a public servant who has risen above the money-grubbing of the commercial world. Let’s test this by looking at how the money really flows.

  • Taxpayer -> education budget -> salary budget -> teacher
  • Taxpayer -> education budget -> materials budget -> online publisher

In either case, it is the taxpayer who puts a roof over our heads and food on our plates. Of course, some online publishers do get rich, but many others go spectacularly broke.

So why does Chalkface support Moodle, which is Open Source?

Notwithstanding the above, I think much Open Source software has great merit, and indeed Chalkface uses it throughout our projects. For example, this website is built on the Open Source ecommerce platform Zwarehouse, and that in turn is an application of the Plone Open Source content management system, which is written in the (Open Source) Python language. I feel that we have a moral duty to reciprocate.

Second, commercial self-interest motivates us. By helping to give schools a real alternative to the grossly overpriced proprietary VLEs out there, we keep budgets free for other purchases. Logically, some of those will be from Chalkface.

So is there such a thing as a free, proprietary, online service?

If you’ve used Google, you know the answer is ‘yes’. In fact, many online services are free or part-free. In addition to Google, examples include Hotmail, the TES Staffroom, and Flickr. Of those, three pay for themselves with advertising. The fourth, Flickr, has a premium service which allows you to do even more for a small fee.

I mention Flickr last because it’s the closest thing to what we are doing with Yacapaca. For light users, everything – hosting, bandwidth, support, the lot – is free. Power users pay, but only a modest fee. This is the closest you are going to get to having your cake and eating it – a free/low-cost online service, and a viable commercial business for the provider.


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2 responses to “Open Source vs Proprietary online services”

  1. Open Source is free.
    Free in the sense of freedom: the teacher or the institution has the freedom to edit the source code to adapt the software to fit their own context and vision, rather than changing the way they work to fit in with some commercial publisher’s idea. What’s more, the liklihood is that it will be cheaper, as there are no shareholder dividends (or equivalent) to meet, and rarely any marketing budget to pay for. Becta’s TCO study ( reported significant savings for schools using open source desktop applications, particularly in support costs, I believe they’d see even bigger savings if they investigated web-based applications.
    And the going rate for Moodle support is the cost of a subscription to (£0 pa; OK there’s also commercial support available, but you don’t have to buy this).

    Open source is morally superior.
    Well, I guess this depends on your morality, but with open source code, the developers are giving freely of their time and expertise for the wider public benefit. People write open source code to make the world a better place (well, slightly better, but still). People write commercial code to make money. That’s how businesses work.

  2. Really the term commercial is the problem. Free and Open Source Software can be commercial. There is nothing to stop you providing a commercial service around FOSS and nothing more immoral about it than for example taking a wage for teaching. You are getting monetary personal gain for providing a service people are prepared to pay for one way or another. The fact is that service models that support open source ecosystems are a good thing. Question is are people putting back as well as taking? That to me is the real moral question if there is one. IBM take quite a lot from Apache Open Office but they are providing a lot back too. Google summer of code etc etc.

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