The Hidden Costs of Open Source Web Design

In a previous post on open source web development platforms, I gave some background about exactly what Open Source means in terms of web design and development. In this post I’ll delve a little deeper into the pros and cons of using and open source web design and content management systems (CMS).

The main attraction to open source systems, for most people, is cost. As in zero. Zip. Nada.

OK, you still have to pay for your web hosting. But budget web hosting starts at under $100 per year.

Once you get your website up and running on your budget web host, you install your theme and plugins (I’m using WordPress terminology here, but the same applies to other open sources CMSs). There are thousands of free themes and plugins, but there are some with more advanced functionality that have licensing fees. These are not going to break the bank, but they can add to the “free” price tag.

Why would you pay for a plugin or theme, when there are usually dozens of free alternatives?

  1. Quality. Free plugins and themes are created by developers for a variety of reasons: as a labor of love, to give back to the community, to learn new skills, to boost a resumé. And although most developers of free plugins are competent, some are not so competent, and their work can be riddled with bugs. Someone who is selling their work as a business has a vested interest in happy customers.
  2. Dependability. For many developers, writing a free plugin is a side project—something they do in their spare time. A new job, a new baby, or simply getting bored and moving on may mean that a plugin is no longer supported. As newer versions of the core software are developed, the free plugin you love may no longer work as the developer does not make the necessary changes for it to keep up with core upgrades. Unless a business goes out of business or discontinues a product, they are likely to do their best to keep it current.
  3. Ease of use. Many plugins are easy to use as a tricycle, which is one of the aspects of open source web development that is so exciting to a web designer. But some plugins still require a greater knowledge of HTML or PHP than your average user is likely to have. Businesses—the successful ones, at least—know that their customers are not likely to be fellow engineers, and will go out of their way to make the software user-friendly.
  4. Documentation. Plugin developers are focused on the code and functionality of the plugin. There is usually some minimal amount of documentation, but for more complex plugins, it may not be all the information you need to get the most out of the plugin. Often, it is written in engineering-speak rather than user-friendly language. Businesses are more likely to hire an experienced technical writer to write documentation—or at least to give documentation more than a glance and a nod.
  5. Support. This can be iffy whether the plugin is free or purchased. It’s rare that there’s an 800# you can call and talk to someone about your issue—but that’s par for the course with most software these days. Hopefully, whether pay or free, there will be a forum where you can post a question, and be helped not only by fellow befuddled users, but by the developer or a knowledgeable person on the developer’s team. The more complex and critical the software—e.g., an ecommerce system—the more important it is that you know you can get answers when you need them.

Yes, these are generalizations. There are developers of free software that is easy and solid and well-documented and well-supported. You can pay good money for difficult to use, buggy software with poor documentation and no support, that is abandoned by the developer after version 1.1.

So how do you figure out what free software to take advantage of, and which is worth paying for? More on that question in a subsequent post.