In the Hardware 2.0 mailbag the other day I received an interesting question concerning open source software and the effect that a recession might have on it. I've got some thoughts on this myself but I thought that it would be interesting to throw this to you the reader to comment on.
Here's a condensed version of the email I received:
I own and run a small family business and we've given serious thought to switching over from commercial software (Windows, MS Office and so on) to open source software instead (Linux, Open Office and so on). This switch would represent quite a savings over a five year period.
However, all this talk of recession makes we wonder if this if this isn't the wrong time to be switching. From what I understand of open source software the majority of the work is done by volunteers, people who get a pay check elsewhere. If times become harder, won't these people stop giving their time away for free and won't this mean that patches, updates and new versions will dry up?
OK, first off, I want to make it clear that I'm not making any predictions about whether there's a coming recession or not. I'll leave that to others. However, the question is itself a valid and interesting one.
So, how might a recession affect open source software? Well, first off, I think that any business model that relies on volunteers could certainly see interest decline if times get tough. There are a lot of businesses that rely on people working for them for free because they get a pay check somewhere else, and I think that a recession would make people question working getting any dollars in return. The flip-side of this though is that being an active part of an open source project is a lot different to spending all day on YouTube or Flickr because some people (remember, the vast majority of the work done on open source projects - even high profile ones - is done by a small number of people) will get something cool to put on their CV.
Another thing to bear in mind is that many of the big open source projects have core staff that consists of developers. This means that even if all volunteer help dried up, the project could still live and breathe. However, smaller projects could still be hit quite hard.
Another area where a recession could harm open source is in hardware support. Plenty of hardware vendors have expressed a desire to become more open source friendly (specifically, Linux-friendly). In an industry where profit margins can be tight during good economic times this demonstrates considerable goodwill, but if times get harder then support for Linux could be something that's abandoned.
All that said though, if switching to open source is going to save you money in the now (and I'd urge anyone thinking of making the switch to think this through carefully - being mindful of hidden costs such as training and downtime) then that's a good thing for you.
I open the floor ...