In the past week, the Kenyan media has been awash with reports that cyber cafes are ditching proprietary software for the perceived cheaper and user-friendly open source software.
This was prompted by a step up in the fight against piracy by software maker Microsoft in conjunction with the Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo).
The duo has, in the recent past, raided several businesses suspected to be dealing in unlicensed Microsoft software, confiscating computers and instituting legal action against offenders.
The raid on businesses followed a 30-day amnesty that was issued by Kecobo in November 2011, urging end-users running counterfeit software on their computers to discontinue illegal use and acquire genuine versions without penalty.
So what are the real benefits of adopting open source and at what cost?
This is the big question that users must grapple with in the dilemma of choosing either side of the divide.
Free and open source software is just that; a version of software available free of charge as an alternative to conventional commercial models like Microsoft Operating System.
Open source software can be used and disseminated at will, and the source code is open and can be changed as required.
In a quick survey by BDLife, it emerged that most business owners prefer open source because of reduced dependence on software vendors and to lower the total cost of software ownership.
However, end users have often argued that they find proprietary software more user friendly than open source.
Josphat Gachie, a computer scientist argues that the reason why most people prefer proprietary software like that offered by Microsoft is the belief that it is superior and friendlier than the open source ones.
“It is unfortunate that even in schools and colleges, learners are taught using Microsoft packages making it the only platform they are used to…in real sense, open source is just as good if users get accustomed to its look and feel,” argues Gachie, whose cyber is running on Ubuntu, an open source operating system.
Just like most IT decision makers, Gachie recognises that open source software is not really free.
Whether open source software is less costly to administer than proprietary software, argue the experts, depends largely on a ready pool of resources trained on the system, the availability of administration tools that allow system administrators to manage a greater number of systems, and the number of version upgrades and patches that are issued by the developer.
In this regard, open source software may have little, if any, advantage over proprietary software, although the situation varies from application to application. Therefore, low cost, although important, is not the key advantage of open source.
Users who spoke to BDLife said “reduced dependence on software vendors” is the most important advantage of open source.
“Software buyers feel some level of dependence on proprietary software vendors. Such dependence includes reliance on the vendor for maintenance and support and the necessity for the buyer to accept version upgrades that the buyer may not need,” said Patrick Kariithi, an Information Science Student at Moi University.
Although it may be more difficult to find users familiar with all free and open source software variants, there are vast amounts of available online documentation and help, available books, and support available for Linux.
However Microsoft Windows includes its own help section, has vast amount of available online documentation and help, as well as books on each of the versions of Windows.
According to Laviniah Muthoni, Microsoft's Public Relations Manager, East and Southern Africa, a key advantage of using genuine Microsoft software is that you can get all the latest updates for free.
Although most tech savvy users can pirate or crack into most of the Microsoft software, Ms Muthoni argues that these are not secured as lots of security modules are changed or completely removed which makes a system vulnerable to number of threats.
Microsoft tries to check if your software is genuine or not through various updates from time to time and if they find your software is not genuine then you will get notification every time you use your software.
But if you are using genuine software then you need not worry about it at all and you can enjoy latest updates and offers by Microsoft.
According to Laban Thua who runs, with associates, Softkenya Digital Village in Nairobi, when Microsoft announces a new version of its Windows Server operating system, it invariably phases out support for older versions of the system.
“Users that are satisfied with these older versions will be eventually forced to upgrade if they want to continue receiving vendor support. In contrast, there is no forced upgrade cycle with open source. Older versions of open source products continue to be supported through the open source community and third party support providers as long as there is demand in the marketplace for such support,” says Thua, who is also a Communication and Media Technology expert.
Thua said the vendor dependent software is expensive especially for cyber café operators since it means one has to buy a licence for each computer or server installed with the software.
“Suppose such a software costs Sh7,000, it means you have to part with Sh70,000 to install the software in 10 computers. This is beyond the reach for most users hence open source becomes the only better option,” argues Thua.
Another survey conducted by Computer Economics, a research firm that provides metrics for IT management, indicates that vendors of proprietary software are missing the point when they argue that open source software has a higher total cost of ownership, is less secure, or has higher risk in terms of ongoing support.
According to the survey, these factors, although important, are not the key concern of software buyers.
The key appeal of open source software is that it avoids vendor lock-in and gives buyers the freedom to choose what to do and when to do it.