Choosing a Website Solution, Part 1: Go Open Source.
By Colin Ryan
A lot of real estate professionals have come to us asking for advice about website design and redesign. We’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject, and we’ve come up with several tips to help guide first-timers as well as second- or third-timers when it comes to researching and developing website solutions for the real estate industry. We’ll start with Part 1: Go Open Source.
A history lesson
During its first phase, the Internet was strictly a telecommunications network, used mostly by academic institutions. Though the technology required to exchange funds via the web existed as early as 1979, it wasn’t until 1995, when the ban on using the Internet for commercial enterprise was lifted, that e-commerce really began in earnest. By the end of 2000, many companies had begun to offer their goods and services through the Internet.
But this was only the first revolution in how we saw the Internet. As software became more advanced, people began to realize that their websites could actually do more than advertise products and service—they could be products and services in themselves. This realization got a lot of web software developers thinking about their source code—chains of commands and instructions written in languages computers can understand and translate into things like menus, buttons, animations, etc.—and whether they should keep it secret. Since software products are digital, they’re obviously much easier to copy and redistribute than physical products. That means if you didn’t protect your source code, anybody on the Internet could access it, see how your program worked, and build it themselves. This led to two main business models: open-source software, in which anyone can view the source code; and proprietary software, in which access to the source code is restricted.
If the proprietary model seems like the obvious choice, let’s consider the products themselves. At first blush, making your software open-source sounds a bit like Coca-Cola making its secret formula available to the public. But Coca-Cola doesn’t change. (In fact, that’s part of its charm.) Software, on the other hand, is always progressing. Software companies are constantly working to respond to advances in hardware, add new features, and perhaps most importantly, fix bugs. If your program is proprietary, the few programmers you’ve hired are the only people who can do all this. That makes the process of creating software long, difficult, and expensive.
By contrast, in an open-source model, any programmer can find flaws and fix problems. Suddenly, you’ve increased your brainpower and your workforce a thousand fold without paying any more money. An open-source model gives developers greater reach and more insight, allowing them to keep abreast of technological trends and leading to quicker innovation. The basic idea: everyone collaborates, everyone wins.
Why open source?
So how does all of this affect to your decision as a customer on which tools to use when building your real estate website? In a word: flexibility. First, the ease of developing and maintaining open-source applications decreases overhead for software companies. That means no matter how a company has monetized their product, you tend to pay less.
Second, when you use open source applications, you have much more control over how your website looks and works. You may have hired the most talented web designer around; but if the proprietary software you chose to have him use isn’t working, he can’t repair it himself. Instead, you have to wait for the company’s developers to fix the problem, then pay more for that fix. With open-source applications, your designer can see the building blocks, and if they’re not fitting together as well as they should, he can change them.
Finally, when you use proprietary software, your business becomes joined at the hip with that company’s file formats and structural design. If you decide you’re unsatisfied with one product, chances are you’ll have to start from scratch in order to switch to another. With open-source software, you can easily switch to a vendor whose product can give your site the functionality and features you need.
At bottom, the Internet is a democratic and capitalistic phenomenon. So when you’re building your website, which would you rather use: a closed system that limits your freedom to ask questions and pursue your vision, or an open one that doesn’t?
Published on November 17, 2011