While open source software has become common these days in small and mid-size organizations, it tends to be seen as "terra incognita" by Fortune 500 or larger groups. Some of the misconceptions I've heard have prompted me to share my experiences working in the open source Community for over a decade now.
When Calvin and I launched Six Feet Up, we picked a web application framework with a robust and scalable back-end and no upfront cost. Zope fit the bill as it was both Python-based and open source. In the open source world, software's source code is usually "free", which means anybody can freely download it at no cost. You go to http://plone.org and click "download". It's that simple. In the proprietary world, you can't download, for example, Sharepoint's source code. With luck you may get access to a free API (Application Programming Interface) to communicate with the software, but you can't change Sharepoint's core code. Free access to a repository of existing code and software products is critical to any start-up.
The other powerful aspect of open source is that it is "open", which means you can see what's in the "box" and you can customize, remove, add to the source code however you'd like. So, if you have great ideas to improve a feature, add a new functionality, or integrate Plone with PubMed or Salesforce.com, you can just do so. This also prevents vendor lock-in as many companies can access the source code of an open source project, and you are free to change vendors at any time. When Six Feet Up is asked to take over projects that have been mis-managed, we do so seamlessly because we have access to all the code changes.
The combination of "open" and "free" is both powerful and empowering. For example, RelStorage, an alternate storage backend for the Plone database that allows integration with relational databases, was considered a key product for sophisticated web projects but lacked the reliability we needed for one of our prominent clients. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Six Feet Up improved RelStorage in order to fulfill a business requirement about no single point of failure, then contributed improvements back to the open source Community.
Another benefit of working with an open source product is that there is, by nature, little secrecy in coding practices and around the world software programmers are usually happy to help their fellow developers anytime, 24/7. If I help you with your problem, you will get closer to releasing your awesome new product add-on that I need for one of my customers, and vice-versa. How would you like to instantly have access to free and knowledgeable customer service? This results in products that are continuously improved by various developers. As an example, we have received code upgrades and bug reports from various developers to Lineage, the microsite solution for Plone we released to the Community last year. Those upgrades end up benefitting all the Lineage users out there.
Open software comes with open communities of developers. Competition usually morphs into a fascinating ecosystem of "coopetition" where vendors compete to get contracts and then partner to deliver projects. Think Google calling Amazon to work on a new website to sell books. Six Feet Up often gets to work on highly visible projects that were signed by competitors with a sales network that expands into areas where we are not. "Coopetition" provides our clients with the insurance that we will get access to and leverage any specific expertise needed for their projects.
This also makes for a unique sense of camaraderie in the whole international open source Community. When Dorneles Treméa, President of the Python Foundation in Brazil, unexpectedly passed away in February 2011, members of the community spontaneously sent messages of condolences as well as financial support to his family. I was one of them too, even though I had never met or talked to Dorneles. It's just what you do for family, and the open source Community is like a big family of people striving to contribute to the greater good by giving development power back to small and agile programming teams. There is a little bit of Robin Hood in each one of us.