They say you shouldn’t start with a quote, but this one really got my attention:

“It’s easy to miss when you’re writing about open source; it’s impossible to miss when you’re selling it/making a living from it.”

That’s a comment Matt Asay left on Dana’s blog.  Matt wrote of his belief that anything but open source software is a bad vendor move.  Dana pointed out that while enterprise open source usage is growing, open source is having more difficulty in the consumer market.

Matt then said:

“It just takes an itch (“I really need an app to rip movies to my hard drive – what is available? Oh, and I’d like it to be free.”) and then Google helps you scratch it (Handbrake, in this case).”

What is telling is the fact that he didn’t mention “and the software should be open source” as a criteria. I believe that for the typical tech-savvy consumer, free matters more than open source.  But, for a typical non-tech-savvy user, cost is just one part of the decision criteria.

From a non-tech-savvy consumer, when it comes to replacing consumer software XYZ that I’ve been using with consumer software ABC, I’d suggest that Skills, Cost and Requirements are amongst the most important factors.

Skills:
Remember, most consumers aren’t like the folks that talk about software development methodologies, or why the open source business model is good/bad/etc.  They’re like my parents, friends, cousins.  They know how to use certain software packages.  They’ve spent time and energy getting proficient with the software they have today. You want them to use something different, even a little different, then there better be huge advantages on the other 2 criteria.  And often, there aren’t such benefits.

Cost:
Most consumers get software pre-loaded on their computer, through work (legally) or  from “a friend who forgot to take the install disk home so I figured I’d better make sure it works before I throw the CD out”.  Usually, the cost of consumer software you have installed is too low to justify the time in learning to use a cheaper alternative product (i.e. Even though OpenOffice isn’t wholly different than MS Office for the tasks an average consumer needs, consumers aren’t leaving MS Office behind in the millions).

Requirements:
Since the average consumer doesn’t use more than 25% of the features (i.e. 80/20 rule) within a consumer package they’re using today, it’s unlikely that their requirements aren’t going to be met with their current software.  In some cases, your current software may prevent you from doing something you want (i.e. rip a backup of your DVDs or use multiple iPods with the same iTunes library).  In these situations, you’ll balance the cost and skills required to use an alternative product.  In most situations, consumers just grin and bear it, maybe because they don’t know about alternatives.  Mostly because the alternative is viewed as a hurdle vs. what they’re using today.

I’d say that the above is true for “an average consumer”, so the dynamic will evolve as a larger portion of consumers become more technically inclined.

PS: Yes, these 3 criteria also play a prominent role in enterprise software purchases – that’s for another day. Gotta run.