Microsoft this week adopted an interesting tactic in its long-running battle with open source software: Businesses looking to save money over the long haul should simply pay for software instead of moving to free, open source solutions. The rationale? Open source comes with hidden costs related to incompatibilities, support, and other inconveniences over time. The end result is that the free version can cost more to use than paid products like Microsoft Office.

"Businesses are discovering the hidden costs of open source and how Microsoft Office represents the most economical option for their productivity and collaboration needs," a Microsoft statement reads.

The company is offering up the UK's Speedy Hire as a typical example of a firm that dabbled in open source only to discover the dark side of moving to Linux-based PCs running the OpenOffice.org office productivity suite. By moving to Windows and Office 2007, Microsoft says, Speedy Hire will now save a projected $1.48 million over the next five years.

"We quickly found that the exorbitant cost and limited availability of support for Linux-based PCs running OpenOffice left us worse off \[financially\]," says Speedy Hire infrastructure and support manager James Fleming. "So the decision to migrate to Microsoft was a no-brainer, especially when we ran the numbers and did a return on investment (ROI) analysis."

"With open source, it was lots of little niggly things that individually may not seem like a big deal, but quickly added up to major inconveniences--like the lack of automatic updates and security patches that forced us to rely on pricey third parties to perform upgrades, or the difficulty of exchanging OpenOffice documents with employees and customers running different systems," he added, noting that the switch wasn't just about money. "Software is supposed to make your life easier, not harder. By moving to Microsoft, we've been able to address these concerns in a single stroke, so the decision made sense from multiple standpoints."

While it's easy to see the PR apparatus behind such claims, I suspect this type of reversal is pretty common for those companies that do dabble in desktop Linux and open source solutions. They're adequate for enthusiasts and some regular users, but don't meet the rigorous needs of businesses.