Open Source v SaaS: the future always wins

20-03-2019 Dennis Zuurhout

Adobe has never made a secret of its ambition to become a player in the e-commerce market and so its acquisition of Magento did not come as a surprise. Clearly, the 200,000 businesses that run on Magento will be wondering what this means for them, but Adobe’s powergrab has concentrated minds more generally. 

Does Open Source have a future in e-commerce?

Vendors have upped their game in recent years, with Software as a Service (SaaS) emerging as a strong commercial alternative to Open Source. Adobe clearly knows which way the wind is blowing. The company already has a strong cloud presence with iconic titles such as InDesign and Photoshop and wants to leverage its capabilities to build market share in e-commerce.

A surprisingly large number of small to mid-sized B2B and B2C sites operate on Open Source. In 2015, Magento had a third of this market. This large take-up is due partly to the perception - or rather, misconception - that Open Source is free, and from the fact that vendors offered rigid, template-based, on-premise alternatives that were actually less agile than Open Source. But with SaaS offering more customization, better security, an omnichannel experience and a faster route to innovation, the business case for Open Source is collapsing. 

This business case always rested on a handful of myths. Time to dismantle them.

Myth 1: Open Source is free

Sometimes, yes. An astonishing 75m websites run on Wordpress. This is free if you want your site to look exactly  like millions of others. For anything (a bit) different you are invited to spend £50 or £75 on a ‘theme’. The needs of B2B and B2C go far beyond that, of course, and even small e-commerce operations will customize the source code, which they are free to do in any way they see fit. But this is where the free lunch ends. Development is so complex and time-consuming, few businesses have the appetite or capability to go it alone. They hire a development team. And once the webshop is up and running, you will be too busy marketing and selling your products to manage the platform. You hire a technology partners. 

This can work out very well, but free it is not. 

Myth 2: The online forum is the best customer support

If there is a problem you don’t need helpful hints from 300,000 fellow Magento users; you want the issue resolved at once. 

Is your technology partner up to this? 

Myth 3: We keep control

Not really. If you have been running your webshop for a few years, your back-end will have accreted so many updates, plug-ins, connectors, adaptations and extensions, the code will effectively be in the hands of those who built it, and that isn’t you.

Users of the Magento platform don’t even have the illusion of control. The company recently confirmed that support for Magenta 1.0 will end in June 2020. The system will not fall down and die at that date, but it will stagnate and atrophy very rapidly. If you want to stick with Magento and the joys of Open Source, you can migrate to Magento 2.0, which is a huge task but fortunately, Magento 2.0 migration “specialists” are standing by to help you. Adobe, too, is circling: it wants to make life easier for you by offering a pain-free switch to Magento’s  “best-in-breed” SaaS platform. 

How long will it take for Adobe the start leveraging the situation, and increase the annual charge? A year, if the experience of Adobe Cloud is anything to go by. 

This brings us to vendor lock-in, the greatest fear of businesses considering a switch to SaaS. Is this fear justified?

Myth 4: We want to avoid vendor lock-in 

You can’t. As we saw, for the very large majority of businesses committing to Open Source means they will need to rely on a specialist to develop and run their e-commerce platform. “I can change partners,” is the response. How easy is that? Your platform is not a parcel to be passed around, but really a living, breathing thing. Finding a new technology partner is no easier than deciding which SaaS platform is the best fit for your business.

The fear of vendor lock-in is not irrational, because you will to some extent be locked in whatever you do. But for that very reason, the problem is a red herring. You could turn the question on its head and ask yourself: “With which vendor is it in my own interest to be locked in?”.

SaaS is the future

Open Source traces back its ideological roots to the 1960s, when academics “invented” the internet. As a modern e-commerce solution, it is an anachronism as most B2B and B2C organizations are now realizing.

The Magento 2.0 debacle sends out a strong signal that the game is up for Open Source, because it destroys the illusion that Open Source belongs as much to you as to any commercial enterprise. 

Consumer expectations are changing almost as quickly as the technology with which they search, evaluate and buy your products. Only Software as a Service is agile enough to keep pace with that evolution.

Is SaaS more expensive than Open Source? That question is no longer relevant. A solution that is not effective cannot be cost-effective either.