May 23, 2016

Platforms based on open-source code are conquering the world of online services. WordPress, in particular, has spread with vigor. The platform is constantly developing, and there is no shortage of implementation partners. With the number of installations as the criterion, WordPress is probably the world’s most popular content management system.

It is suitable for relatively simple websites, and thus mostly for small and mid-size companies, for whom it is enough to offer the visitor a pleasant visual experience and publish some basic content, such as news. An open-source product for slightly more complex solutions is the very popular Drupal, a platform technically more capable than WordPress. In addition, other platforms building on open-source code abound.

There are, however, many scenarios for which I think open-source solutions are not at all, or, at least, very well suited. These include needs for digital marketing capabilities or multi-language management, to name a couple of examples, which many organizations have regardless of their industry. In these scenarios, commercial products have a clear lead over their open-source challengers.

To be more specific, I’m talking about international commercial vendors (for example Sitecore and Episerver), which means that what I say does not necessarily apply to small local products and their representatives.

Five reasons to pick a commercial product

At least these things speak for choosing a commercial product:

  1. Capabilities supporting digital marketing and sales: Large commercial actors have for some time focused on customer experience management features. These include content personalization, built-in newsletter tool, A/B testing and marketing automation tools. These features are increasingly necessary in today’s operating scenarios, and they are actually pretty challenging to implement. Related features include things like the tight integration of the public website and e-commerce site, and multichannel management in general. Integration between different systems focuses particularly on other marketing tools: CRM systems, social media services, other marketing automation tools and a variety of DAM systems. The aim is to make the web content management platform the center of the entire scope of digital marketing.
  2. Functionalities and usability: Even other functionalities have often been developed further than in open-source products, and one of their most important characteristics is user friendliness. Content creators with a marketing or communications background typically appreciate easy usability and flexibility. The user interfaces of commercial products (such as WYSIWYG, Drag & Drop) are significantly more comfortable to use in comparison with open-source products. Flexibility allows easy editing, which is why small changes do not require using a technical partner.
  3. Multi-language and multi-site scenarios: Open-source communities have struggled with solving the multi-language problem for a long time. Solutions do exist, but their usability is largely dependent on the competencies of the technical development team. In commercial systems, these features have been developed centrally and much further, and they are easier to manage. In addition, commercial systems include various translation and translation management functions, as well as possibilities to automate translation. You might say that the more complex the operating environment in this context, the more it makes sense to select a commercial product.
  4. A clear roadmap: The centralized product development of commercial products brings a lot more clarity to their future update cycle than with open-source products. The speed of development is really fast in these days. It should be noted, though, that from the point of view of the product lifecycle, the future outlook of products like WordPress or Drupal is stable, whereas commercial actors are exposed to the usual business uncertainties when it comes to continuity.
  5. Strong pool of partners: As a rule of thumb, commercial actors have a significantly stronger pool of partners. Even though open-source agencies abound, many of them are businesses with less than 20 people (at least here in Finland). Their level of experience also varies a lot. Agencies relying on commercial products, on the other hand, are typically larger system integrators whose technical competencies, resources, service offering, and maintenance and development capabilities are in a different class from those of smaller operators.

The strange arguments for open source code

In addition to the points above, we should also challenge the arguments presented by proponents of open source code, because some of them are fairly strange. As I see it, these three typical examples particularly have a flip side:

  1. Large development community: A traditional strength of open source code is its widespread developer community whose members give their individual contributions to the development of the whole. This, of course, is true, but cannot be interpreted as a singularly positive thing. A widespread developer community, by definition, means a geographically dispersed group of programmers with diverse programming skills. Even though a large crowd – at least in theory – can achieve a lot, nobody has the final responsibility for product development, support or documentation. A paid license obligates the supplier to take care of all this.
  2. Free: Another thing that makes open source code attractive is its lack of license fees. Open-source is usually synonymous with free of charge. Admittedly, this applies to license cost, but I would suggest you rather look at the total lifecycle cost when choosing your platform. Determine your real needs and think about your future ambitions.
  3. Unlimited customization possibilities: From another angle, this means that if your needs exceed the publishing of simple content pages, the solution always entails a customized implementation. Customization possibilities are a good thing for the programmer, but customized solutions often make life more difficult for the ordinary content creator. Increasing customization means that even small changes must be made by the technology partner, which introduces inflexibility in further development, and even difficulties in simple things like version updates. In addition, switching the partner will become more difficult.

Which to choose, then?

Both alternatives have their advantages. Open-source systems are not suited for all situations, but on the other hand, a heavier commercial system may be overkill. You should allocate some time to carefully go through what you actually want from your online service and your digital presence, and what resources you have available for digital development.

For major commercial actors, the traditional content management and publishing capabilities are already mass features that don’t work as sales arguments. Instead, these actors focus on customer experience management in both their marketing and their product development. Putting the wide range of capabilities inherent in these products into appropriate use places demands on your organization (resources, competencies, etc.) as well as your partners.

Open-source products also have many good sides and a certain attractiveness. Nevertheless, sharing the open source code presents a practical problem. To make the most of open source code, it should be shared much more than today. For Finnish-speakers, I recommend you read an article from last fall by my colleague, Perttu Tolvanen, entitled “Avoin lähdekoodi ei ole avointa, jos sitä ei ole jaettu”.

There’s also the schism between schools of thought. Some people swear by open source code, while others consider commercial products as the only credible alternative. To make things more interesting, there are actors like Acquia (Drupal) and Automattic (WordPress) who offer commercial solutions and services on top of free open-source products. In addition to commercial challenges and possibilities, these actors are sure to think about how to maintain the satisfaction of the open-source community.2

Even so, organizations do not necessarily need to make an unconditional choice between the alternatives. To name an example, in many cases an international, multi-language main business website is created by using a commercially licensed product, with investor-oriented corporate pages and a variety of campaign pages implemented by using open-source products.

In case you’re unsure of how to proceed, get in touch. We will help you make a sensible, sustainable choice.