This simple fact was brought home to me over the weekend when I was at the SouthEast Linux Fest at Clemson University. There, I saw Chad Wollenberg, a network administrator who focuses on the integration of free and open technologies in education. The point of his talk was really quite simple: "Why should our school systems be paying for proprietary software when teachers are being laid off?"
Good question. My own home county of Buncombe in western North Carolina will be letting about 80 teachers go with the current budget. Like many other government agencies, and businesses, they simply don't have enough money coming in.
But, Wollenberg asks, why don't we save money for teachers, by switching to FOSS (free and open-source software), he's not talking about major changes, like switching from Windows to Linux on desktops. He's talking about taking small steps. As Wollenberg points out, it's not so much that the school systems have problems with open source; it's that they're reluctant to adopt anything new.
Instead of big scary changes, he suggests that you should try to get school systems to start with end-user programs like Firefox, OpenOffice, and Moodle, open-source course management software. The argument you should use to encourage administration to make these changes is simple economics.
For example, when an impoverished school district in Virginia faced moving from Office 2003, which is reaching its end of support lifetime, to Office 2007, they were in trouble. Even at Microsoft's rock-bottom price of $50 per academic license per PC, it would cost them over $200-thousand dollars. By convincing them to switch to OpenOffice and Google Docs, Wollenberg saved them that money. Or, to look at it another way, that was about four mid-level jobs saved.
That same lesson can be applied in any government agency or business place. It's not easy, of course. As several teachers in attendance and Wollenberg pointed out there are several barriers to FOSS. They range from, "I have no idea what the hell you're talking about," to such FUD as only Microsoft Office formats are acceptable. Ah folks, leaving aside the advantages of ODF (Open Document Format) over Microsoft's proprietary formats, OpenOffice 3.1 does just fine at creating documents and spreadsheets in Office 2003's native document formats.
The real telling argument though isn't whether ODF is technically or ideologically better than Microsoft's Open-XML format. It's that when you need to switch from one version of proprietary software to another, you should point out to the powers that be that the open-source equivalents can save them a lot of money.
While GnuCash doesn't get the headlines of Linux or Firefox, it's a very solid accounting program. And, yes, it can import data from Microsoft Money. It's also free, and you won't have to pay for it every few years as you do with Quicken, which requires you to pay for an upgrade.
Is that a lot of money? No, on a per desktop or per user basis, it's not. But, when times are tight, and you're dealing with dozens to tens of thousands of licenses, you better believe it's a ton of cash.
Now, I don't know about you, but given a choice between saving money by cutting jobs or by switching to FOSS, I know which one I'm going to go for every time. If you're smart you'll agree. After all, the job you may be saving might be yours.