Open-source vs proprietary software: Which is better?

Published May 20, 2022 by Xiph

Whether your business is migrating to a new operating system, design software, or customer relationship management (CRM) platform, you may at some point be faced with choosing between an open-source or proprietary software infrastructure. Both come with benefits and disadvantages for businesses. We cover everything you need to know below.

What’s proprietary software?

Proprietary software is owned and protected by the individual(s) or company who developed it. It’s managed solely by the team or organisation that owns it and is copyrighted and typically only available under licence. Users typically have to pay a fee to use or license proprietary software, as well as for commercial support or maintenance. Users of proprietary software are usually given an authenticated licence to use the software, and this most often comes with restrictions and stringent terms and conditions. The majority of engineering and commercial software applications are proprietary. Some common and popular proprietary software include Microsoft Windows, OS operating systems, Adobe Photoshop, Slack, and Norton Antivirus.

The main characteristics of proprietary software include:

  • Restrictions on sharing and installation of software
  • Subject to time limits after which licence must be renewed
  • Updates and added features come an at extra cost
  • Reliance on the vendor to continue to debug and improve the product

What’s open-source software?

In contrast, open-source software (commonly referred to as OSS) is public and available for anyone to access or change the code (free of copyright). The source code is available openly on the internet for programmers to modify and add new features and capabilities at no extra cost to users. Open-source software is developed and tested through open collaboration and managed by an open-source community of developers. Users do not need to have an authenticated licence to use open-source software. Some common and popular open-source software include Linux, WordPress, Mozilla Firefox, VLC Media Player, and Magento.

The main characteristics of open-source software include:

  • Software can be used by anyone and for any purpose
  • Full visibility and access to the source code
  • Freedom to modify and improve the program
  • No restrictions on redistributions

Open-source vs proprietary software: Features

Open-source software offers more features, flexibility, and adaptability because entire global communities (rather than companies) contribute to the source code, meaning open-source projects and software have unlimited scope and can be customised to all types of users, businesses, industries, and niches. Programmers behind open-source software work together to introduce new concepts and capabilities faster, better, and more effectively than internal teams working on proprietary software.

Open-source vs proprietary software: Security

The myth is that proprietary software is more secure than open-source largely because they’re offered by big, well-established corporations but keep in mind that a commercial or corporate licence doesn't guarantee you security. Proponents of open-source software would argue they offer more checks and balances as they’re peer-reviewed. Open code means everyone gets full visibility of its development and customisation, and into discussions about how the community develops features and fixes. Unlike proprietary software, open-source software is transparent about potential vulnerabilities. The source code has many authors and developers who contribute to the program over time, by adding extra features and security upgrades. Because there are more eyes on it, the reliability of open-source code tends to be superior as well. With open-source software, you see exactly what you’re getting as it’s open to the public. On the other hand, proprietary software is copyrighted and often shrouded in secrecy. It comes with many limitations and lock-ins.

Open-source vs proprietary software: Cost

Generally, there are no upfront costs or licensing required for using, copying, or studying open-source software. Most open-source software also come with free themes and plugins. However, there are some open-source licences available for users that offer more freedom and flexibility, and these are offered by the author within the license agreement. The freedom to run the software for any purpose, on any number of computers or devices, can significantly reduce costs, which is usually what drives a business (usually with limited resources) to adopt open-source software. On the flip side, proprietary software comes with licensing fees, maintenance costs, and sometimes even subscription fees.

Open-source vs proprietary software: Support

Because proprietary software is managed by a single vendor/supplier, it has dedicated technical consultants or support teams on hand to offer businesses 24/7 tailored support and maintenance on products and programs they’ve developed and improved in-house. Most proprietary software packages come with a free support phone number or chatbots to help businesses troubleshoot issues instantaneously.

Open-source vs proprietary software: Scalability

Open-source software has by nature unlimited scope for scalability since community members can add as many integration capabilities including application programming interfaces (APIs) as they want. Open-source software is ideal for small-scale projects; however, proprietary software is still considered the best bet for large commercial projects that have no room for error. These typically have specific parameters around data and may require immediate technical support.

Open-source vs proprietary software: Pros & cons

Both software models have multiple pros and cons, with each offering benefits to businesses, individuals, and specific projects.

Proprietary software pros

Proprietary software cons

Commercial, proprietary software are typically designed with a smaller scope of features and abilities

Require a license/subscription fee and maintenance costs

Provide regular upgrades, technical support, and a wide range of tools

Software can’t be modified or customised to meet the needs of the user (code can’t be edited)

Offer better maintenance and support (updates & support provided directly by software supplier)

Can be discontinued and affect business operations if the software supplier/developer ceases management

Open-source software pros

Open-source software cons

Offer more tailored features & capabilities (greater overall functionality)

Not as easy to use (better suited to skilled users)

Free to use, modify and distribute (users have full access to the source code at all times)

Support and maintenance might not be readily available as not one individual or organisation owns the software

Open-source communities constantly update these programs and remove bugs

Community support may not be suitable for some enterprise scenarios

Is open-source software better than proprietary software?

Open-source and proprietary software both have their strengths and weaknesses, so the choice will come down to the nature of your business operations (i.e. corporate, commercial, not-for-profit, etc.) and project dependencies like timelines, scope, features, and budget. As a general rule, small bootstrapped start-ups can benefit from the low-cost and unlimited scope of open-source software, while larger companies looking to scale up and integrate seamlessly with existing tools would be better off with proprietary software.

A final word

Open-source software is a worthwhile alternative to traditional proprietary software and applications, but ultimately your choice of software class will depend on your business’ specific needs and goals. For advice or information on whether open-source or proprietary software is best, contact us via email: [email protected]


Posted in: Security