Why We can’t Afford Shrink-Wrapped Software, and It’s NOT About the Money

By Russell Williams

As I conclude this series of articles on why we in developing countries really must break the shackles of “consumerism” especially as it relates to technology and software by giving some examples.

The most important asset a commercial enterprise has is its customers! If you disagree try to run your business without them. A close second is the information that business has about those customers, what they purchase, the frequency, how much they owe and what could we get them to buy. Anyone who has even looked at a product on Amazon, can see how Amazon makes the data associated with not only purchases but also products viewed work for them.

Select a $5 screwdriver, and you will see that people who selected it also looked at 3 other screwdrivers, and a set of 5, or ultimately bought the $7 screwdriver! In contrast most businesses in the region appear ignorant of the value of this information. How many times would you ask a trader, “do you have this container a little bigger?” to be told “no, that is what we have” and in many case all they will ever have.” But consider recording how many enquiries for a larger container that trader may get a week/month?

What if you were asked, “Can I take your details and see how soon we can get one for you and at what price?” I can tell you, once I regained consciousness, I would be a customer for life! But no, the “opportunity” and the potential for more sales goes out the door, and with it the opportunity to increase the customer base.

Several years ago, I realised the need for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, to manage not just customers but potential customers and convert enquiries and leads to sales and customers. I bought, yes bought a leading proprietary system which integrated with my paid for accounting solution, so I could easily convert a prospect to a customer and see which products and services were taken up.

I later spent $1000’s on a newer multi-user version of the CRM which despite assurances and claims that it would be compatible with the accounting program it wasn’t. So there I was, my key accounting and customer data were for all intents and purposes in two different systems again. But not only did I have a financial investment in these two programs, my data which was more valuable was invested or held prisoner by the vendor’s proprietary database.

I could have continued with a mixed solution from the software vendor and paid increasing sums over the years for upgrades and optional paid support. I want to draw attention to that last part, Optional Paid support, because as mentioned in the previous post, support is often cited as a key driver for buying “commercial” or proprietary solutions over Open Source products, however, as we can see even having paid US$1200+ for a product support is still a paid for option!

At the time the money wasn’t the most objectionable issue to me; my main concern was that my data was locked in a system which I had little control over. What would happen if I decided not to continue using these products beyond their supported life cycle? What if a superior and cheaper product came along? Would I have even more data and time invested in these programs? This is what is termed vendor lock-in and I decided to get off that bus before it went any further down the road with me and my data.

I decided to go with an Open Source solution which made use of Open Standards and a freely available database where I would be free to write my own reports without the need for another expensive proprietary or third-party report writing tool, and to migrate my data more readily to another program or platform should I want or need to. I could also pay for support if I wanted to, just as I could with the paid for proprietary product. The point is that businesses and governments around the world as far as Europe and Africa and as close as Brazil, are seeing the benefits of not having your organisation’s key data potentially locked in to a vendor’s proprietary solution.

Consider the many governments and businesses around the globe faced with austerity and shrinking sales, reduced taxes and increased debt, rethinking the merits of paying huge sums in software licences simply to ensure they can maintain access to their critical data! Some governments in Africa have coined the phrase “techno-colonialism” and as far back as 2002 developed and adopted Open Source policies to ensure that they not only have access to their data, but also develop capacities in-country.

The adoption and implementation of Free or Open Source Software (FOSS) or FLOSS[1] policies at a national level are key to the future technological development of our countries and essential if we’re really serious about closing the digital divide, or participating in the knowledge economy and digital society as more than mere users of whatever office product Microsoft issues or Facebook. Indeed some countries see the matter as one of National Security and a mark of true independence.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_open_source_software