Cooking dinner is by far one of my favourite things to procrastinate on (second only to the exciting task of cleaning up afterwards), which is why I occasionally find myself feasting on the delightful culinary stylings found in the supermarket’s frozen food section. Being inquisitive, I’ve even been known to actually read the ingredient list as I anticipate my upcoming demonstration of microwave mastery. A typical description of the ingredients tends to look a bit like this http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/meals-entrees-and-sidedishes/6034/2.

So I guess that’s not so bad – I mean it has all the right components, most of them are even somewhat recognizable – and (bonus!) I’m fairly certain none of them will actually kill me.

Open Source Lasagna

Now being a fine upstanding gentleman of discerning taste, I do occasionally take the time to make food on my own. Much like most people when forging a culinary treasure I like to follow a recipe. Here’s a nice one for lasagna (feel free to send your fully prepared samples ℅ Gene Foxwell at Envision Online Media).

So here’s the crux of this article – since it’s pretty clear that making lasagna from the recipe requires far more effort than carefully preparing it in the microwave, why the heck don’t I just eat frozen food all the time? (I really don’t – honest!) Simple: when I make the food myself I have the luxury of adjusting the recipe to my taste. If I don’t like the taste of carrots, I am free to remove them, or exchange them for a new ingredient. With a pre-made frozen dinner, there is simply no practical way of doing this.

That leads us to the end of the analogy train for the day – many of you would have guessed the comparison I am making already from the tag line, but for completeness I’ll just state it anyway. My idea here is that off-the-shelf software is pretty much like frozen lasagna: sometimes it’s great, exactly what’s needed after a long day of work, but other times it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

What’s an Analogy Without a Couple of Examples?

Let’s start by looking at the shrink-wrapped software everyone is most likely to know – Microsoft Word. When it comes to creating regular business documents, it generally has just about every ingredient you could possibly want. However, if you wanted to, say, write a thesis on the inner workings of Quantum Mechanics (which I know you are all secretly doing in your spare time) you’ll be missing the tools needed to easily format and order all the strange and unique symbols that show up in that mathematical context. Since it’s shrink-wrapped, there really isn’t much that can be done – you’d just need to move on and pick another tool.

Now for an example that is a little closer to Envision’s heart – the Umbraco CMS. As an open-source content management system, you get a great recipe to start with, as there’s a lot it can do right from the get-go. But when we use this to make our clients’ websites, they all have different needs, so they all want it to do different things. Some might need a protected log in area for their members or customers, others might need a custom events calendar or the ability to shop and pay for things online. With an open source system, because I can change the code, I can give our clients literally whatever they want – all it takes is some time and effort. With some other systems, all you can do is reheat and serve (OK, maybe you could grate some extra cheese on top, but that’s about it).

The edge provided by open source is that it gives you a tried and true recipe – not just a ready-made meal. The beauty is that this recipe can either be cooked up as is or with some effort, can be turned into a gourmet dish that’s perfectly seasoned to my tastes.

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