The Four Worst Myths about Open Source CMS

If you aren't used to using an open source CMS, then you may have fallen victim to several popular myths. Even those who are familiar with the open source environment believe some of these myths. For both avid open source users and proprietary CMS users, we offer fair warning regarding the four worst myths about open source CMSs.

1.  Open source CMS are much easier to use than proprietary systems.

This is sheer myth. The person who declares that open source X is easier than proprietary Y in has a lot of explaining to do. We need a more detailed explanation in order to make “easier” or “harder” comparisons. There are tons of open source CMSs, untold numbers of proprietaries, a million or so hybrids, and an infinite number of “easy” or “hard” things that you can do with them. This sweeping “easier” declaration is firmly founded upon the speaker's lack of knowledge regarding his or her subject matter.

Perhaps the real downer to a statement like this is its ramifications. Believing that one CMS is “easier” than another may contribute to further mistakes.

  • It may cause a business to choose said open source CMS without being prepared for the learning curve.
  • It may lead to a business being shorthanded on developers or IT, once they discover that it takes more than just someone handy with Microsoft Word to run the thing.
  • It mistakenly leads some to conclude that “easier” means “cheaper” in terms of talent acquisition and/or training.

On the flip side, it's dangerous to think that proprietary systems are easier. Before we talk about easy or hard, let's just make sure we're making it really clear what we're talking about.

2.  Open source is free. 

The fact is, WordPress, Joomla, TYPO3, or Drupal won't ask you to pay for their system. Yes, the system itself is free. But what about everything else? Hosting, design, plugins, themes, extensions, tools, implementation, support, maintenance, adoption costs, programs, designers, developers and whatever else is involved in a CMS are usually not free. The buzzword “free” leads many astray with the assumption that they're getting something for nothing. That's just not how life works, not even in the promised land of open source CMSs. In the end, the total cost of ownership does not necessarily land lower than the TCO of a proprietary system. You're going to pay for something, even if it's not the CMS itself.

3.  Open source costs more than proprietary.

Some have reversed the above myth (#2) to postulate another myth that is equally untrue. They say, with a glint of disdain in their eye, that open source CMSs actually have more hidden costs than proprietary systems. The furtive word “hidden” likely denotes such things as development, maintenance, etc.

Here's the grain of truth in the myth:  Somewhere, in the distant passages of past time, a company did a cost-survey analysis and discovered a proprietary system might actually cost less overall than some open source alternative. Fair enough; end of story.

My chief carp against this myth is its lack of legitimate comparison. It is never appropriate to say one type of CMS is superior to/cheaper than/ easier than/ more powerful than another type of CMS. (See myth #1.) There are a bajillion more factors to consider. A better approach is to survey your TCO, and to make no decisions based on that one lonely datapoint — the cost of the CMS itself.

4.  There is no training or support if you choose open source. 

Um, no. Any developer who has spent time honing his open source craft can tell you that this is untrue. Just because some well-funded proprietary CMS hosts an annual conference doesn't mean that the open source users lacks support. Open source users can find online help, forums, paid classes, local meet ups, YouTube how-tos, expensive manuals, more expensive consultants, and whizz-bang contract developers. The support and training are there; they just don't get packaged into some monthly fee along with the CMS itself.

A white paper published by a proprietary CMS developer discussed the downside of open source with a teary-eyed tale of someone who had been there, done that with open source:  “As a service provider looking for support for critical applications, I don't want to depend on the equivalent of begging in the street for answers — that is what support is like with open source content management system [CMS]. I want to know that I'll get a real person, whose job is on the line, to help me.”

The slant of this statement is evident. We don't know what this gentleman was doing, cryptically referred to as “begging in the street for answers,” but we know that online support manuals, sophisticated training programs, up-to-the-minute forums, and easy Google searches are not begging in the streets. The answers are there; the support for your critical applications is there. You can stay off the streets.

Choosing a CMS is an important decision — too important to fall prey to these myths. As long as you're doing your homework, comparing CMSs in the right way, and getting a broad survey of CMSs, you'll be fine.