Open source is a good thing. Some software has source code that only the person, team, or organization who created it maintains exclusive control over it. This kind of software is “proprietary” or “closed source” software. Open source software is development methodology where anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance the source code. The term “open source” refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. The term originated in the context of software development to designate this specific type of software.
Free Software != Freeware
In the early days of computing, Richard Stallman started a movement where programmers and developers shared their code in order to learn from each other and evolve the field of computing. Known as free software. However, open source software is different than free software. By free software, I don’t mean free of cost, but rather the freedom the owner receives by owning software. Users are free to do what they want with their software. This principle states people should be able to redistribute the software free of charge, or sell it, or charge for related services. The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for slightly different things.
According to the free software movement’s leader, Richard Stallman, the main difference is it lets others know about what one’s goals are: “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” Still, there is a huge similarity between open source software and free software.
What if software could make money and be available to modify?
Eventually the free software notion moved to the way side of commercialization of software in the years 1970-1980. In 1997, Eric Raymond published a book called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Closed source is like the building of a cathedral; central planning, tight organization and one process from start to finish. The open source bazaar is more like “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.” This prompted Netscape to be released as free software. This source code became the basis behind Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird along with various other big pieces of software. Netscape’s act prompted Raymond and others to look into how to bring the Free Software Foundation’s free software ideas and benefits to the commercial software industry.
The new term they chose was “open source”, which was soon adopted by a large portion of the programming community, including Linux overlord and creator Linus Torvalds among others. The Open Source Initiative was founded in February 1998 to encourage use of the new term and open source principles. Several open source software licenses have been created thanks to this organization. The most popular example is the GNU General Public License, which “allows free distribution under the condition that further developments and applications are put under the same license” in other words, open source software stays open source under this license.
What is best thing about open source software?
It costs way less. A 2008 report by the Standish Group states that adoption of open-source software models has resulted in savings of about $60 billion per year to consumers. Marketing and logistical services cost less as well. Open source development approach has helped produce reliable, high quality software quickly and inexpensively. People love this aspect, but there are also tons of other good reasons to develop like this.
Open source software is more secure as the code is accessible to everyone. Code being continuously analyzed by a large community so anyone can fix bugs as they are found. In some cases, users don’t even have to wait for the next release. Open source is not dependent on the company or author that originally created it, which offers the potential for a more flexible technology and quicker innovation.
The companies using open-source software also don’t have to think about complex licensing models and don’t need anti-piracy measures like product activation or serial number as they’re generally free of charge. Open source software can be sold and used commercially, commercial open source applications have actually been a part of the software industry for some time, but commercialization or funding of open source software projects can be challenging if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Unlike proprietary software that comes with restrictive licenses, open source software is usually distributed freely, through the web and in physical media. Actually, much of the Internet runs on open source software tools and utilities such as Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, known as the LAMP stack for web servers.
It inspires coders differently
Authors are motivated by pride and peer recognition along with a love for the product rather than a development plan supplied by the marketing department. Most want to use the software themselves. This isn’t as common for commercial software. There can be several authors working in parallel, so the best solution can be chosen instead of only one solution being created at a time (typical for a commercial product). Open source software is also usually easier to obtain than proprietary software, often resulting in increased usage.
It’s not uncommon for software vendors to apply a number of tactics to trick their customers to stick with their closed source product unwillingly. Typical tactics include moving to allegedly new and improved file formats. (which require the new and improved software to read them). They also withdraw support and bug fixes for older versions after a short period. This is known as vendor lock-in.
Another chief advantage of open source software is that it frees you from vendor lock-in. In fact, “freedom from vendor lock-in” ranked as the number one reason to adopt open source software in the 2011 and 2012 Future of Open Source surveys. In the 2013 survey, “freedom from vendor lock-in” was number two, beaten by “better quality software”.
What about the disadvantages?
You’re still locked in with open source software, just not to the vendor. The app is what locks you in with open source. After you’ve opted for an open source app, it’s up to you to provide ongoing maintenance, upgrades and troubleshooting, as well as any needed end-user support. You’re now the software vendor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though.
Another main disadvantage of open-source software is it can often not be easy to use. Linux or another open source OS cannot be mastered in a day. They require effort and possibly training to really grasp it. Most of the world tends to use Microsoft Office and Windows. Schools and other businesses feel under pressure to stick to the ‘industry standard’ software, which isn’t open source. Customers won’t desire change or upgrade products that work well enough to suit their needs. If a software supplier can establish a virtual monopoly and then force upgrades onto its customers they can make big bucks.
There’s also issues with unclear development process, the late defect discovery and the lack of any empirical evidence. In terms of security, open source may allow hackers to know about the weaknesses or loopholes of the software more easily. Open source software can be seen as good or bad for the security of the product.
People fighting for open source
There are quite a number of charitable organizations supporting the open source software movement. Richard Stallman was the founder of the free software movement. Eric Raymond inspired the open source movement. Some of the more prominent organizations involved include the Apache Software Foundation (creators of the Apache web server) and the Linux Foundation, a nonprofit by Linus Torvalds.
Prime examples of successful open source products are the Apache HTTP Server, internet browsers Mozilla Firefox and Chromium (Google Chrome Jr.) and the full office suite LibreOffice. One of the most successful open source products is the GNU/Linux operating system. Linux also led to the creation of the ever-popular Android mobile operating system.
Where open source didn’t work
Diaspora is a free personal web server that implements a social networking service. Installations of the software form nodes (called “pods”) which make up the Diaspora social network. The group received crowdfunding to the tune of $200,000 via Kickstarter. They released a consumer alpha version on 23 November 2010. By August of 2012, after a ton of delays, the creators and stepped down from the project and let the community take over.
That’s not to blame the fact it was open source, sometimes good ideas just don’t pan out. The battle was lost before they even began. The difficulty of actually executing a project of this magnitude left a team of four young kids with little real-world programming experience in too deep. The first release in 2010 was a disaster, mainly for its bugs and security holes. Former fans dismissed it as “swiss cheese.” Diaspora struggled, the original funding ran out, and venture capital interest disappeared fast. On November 12th 2011, one of the founders, was found dead and shortly after the rest of the founders stepped down from the project.
There are tons of examples of open source projects both doing well and not so well. Open source software is everywhere today. I think it’s a good thing. Why shouldn’t people be able to see what’s going on under the hood of a product they own or use? This doesn’t apply to certain technologies or services where privacy is of the utmost importance or if there’s another valid reason to not show code, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able check the source code of most things I installed or use on my computer.
It’s like saying I shouldn’t be able to open the hood on my car to check out my engine. (or whatever car people do, I’m a programmer not a mechanic). It’s good for the tech community to help evolve the world of computing. It’s how we can continue to innovate everything that’s good in the world.