At The Institute for Mapping Technology we use teach Quantum GIS. Quantum or QGIS is an open source program. This means the software is free to download and use. On the other hand the most popular commercial program is ESRI ArcDesktop.  What is the difference between using an open source program vs a commercial program? We are going to go over what is commercial and what is open source, provide the pro’s and con’s of each and finally provide some links to learn more about this topic.


First let’s identify what each term means.


Open source refers to software where the source code is available to and can be modified by anyone. Developers of the source code encourage for others to modify and improve upon the software and it is often released as a later software version.This is done under the GNU General Public License which allows for the software to be released for free. Examples includes Quantum GIS and Linux OS.


Commercial software is where the source code is not available for use and modification is not encouraged. The code is usually under a copyright/trademark and there can be legal ramifications for changing it.This also means that they can charge for someone to use it. Examples includes Microsoft Office or Apple OS.


What are the pros and cons of each?


Cost to obtain
Open source:  It is free to download and use along with future updates and upgrades.


Commercial: Requires a license that costs money. Depending on the program future updates/upgrades may cost money to purchase.


Cost should not just be the initial start up price. It should be looked at as long term. What will it be to retain the product? Factors include support, updates, security etc.


The availability of the programs code

Open source: The code is available for anyone to see and it can be modified by anyone. This allows for a business or individual to be able to customize the software to your needs. It is only hampered by the in house IT skills. This would mean either the end user being tech savvy or if it is for a business the in house IT will need to be familiar with the code.


Commercial:  The code is not available for use. The product that is purchased can not be changed in anyway. Some offer different packages that may meet the users needs.


Product Support
Open source: External is avail for a fee. For example Red Hat with Linux software provides support. Otherwise any issues that come up will need to be solved on your own. There is a large user community available for assistance.


Commercial: Support will be provided when the product is purchased. This can be in form of someone in house being provided the tools to service the program or having to contact the vendor directly.


Open Source: The more mature open source programs tend to be very reliable and of equal and in some cases greater quality than the commercial software. This is because they have had the time to develop the program and fix any major bugs that may have happened in the beginning. Keeping up with updates will be something the user must do on their own. You are also able to use your current version of the software as long as you want.


Commercial: Some people see a large corporation has being more reliable and established. The larger a corporation or the longer it’s been around the quality of the product will have already been established.They will often keep up with the updates for you. Sometimes a prior version of the software is no longer supported.


Open source:  The code is open so any risks can be fixed fairly quickly, but they can also be created since the code is open and vulnerabilities can be seen.


Commercial: They are also susceptible to security attacks. It can sometimes take longer for a risk to be identified and fixed.


In the case of open source and commercial it can also depend on how vigilant the user is.


When choosing whether to purchase a program or use open source you should first evaluate your needs or the needs of your business. They each offer pro’s and con’s. This just some basic information to consider when choosing which program to use.


What do you use? Why do you prefer it?


End notes:


For a list of open source and commercial GIS programs: Mapping Software

“What does open source mean?” HowStuffWorks

Thomas Trappler “Is There Such a Thing as Free Software? The Pros and Cons of Open-Source Software”  educausereview online July 30, 2009

GNU Operating System “Licenses”

RedHat “Red Hat Enterprise Linux”


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