Open Source and Free Software Explained
Now let's talk about open source and free software. These are terms with specific meanings, and with governing bodies behind them. In the beginning was the Free Software movement, which is based on these principles:
"Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this."
The word "free" is more often interpreted as free of cost, rather than free as in freedom, so it is an endless source of confusion. Though it is true that most free and open source software is available free of cost in one form or another. Even the big-time commercial Linux distributions like Red Hat and Ubuntu have to make their source code available. Consequently there are dozens of derivatives: for example CentOS and Scientific Linux are popular Red Hat clones, and Mint, Kubuntu, and Mythbuntu are popular Ubuntu spinoffs.
The Open Source Initiative oversees open source software licenses. The Open Source Definition is similar to the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms. As always happens in computer nerd-land, there have been endless debates over the differences between the two, and which one is better or more pure or what-have-you.
For you, the small business owner figuring out your IT strategy, the differences don't matter. Because when you contrast these principles and licenses with the typical closed, proprietary software license that is full of restrictions, dire warnings and punishments, they both offer you considerably more value. Phil Hughes, the founding publisher of Linux Journal is famously quoted as saying, "Closed source is like buying a car with the hood welded shut".
Free/Open Source Software and Business Strategy
The only time you have to worry about the fine details of Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) licenses is if you develop software and release it for other people to use. Whatever you do in-house nobody knows and nobody cares. But if you release it, you'll need to be very careful about what F/OSS you build on, and how various components of your software are licensed.
Some licenses are incompatible, and you can't mix-and-match. You'll find expert help at the Open Source Initiative and the Free Software Foundation, so consult them first. If you—or your boss—feel a bit whiny about complying with F/OSS licenses, you might calculate how much it would cost you to develop from scratch, rather than having gigabytes of top-quality code to build on.
Which brings me to an overlooked but very important point: F/OSS is not a business model. It is a software development model. F/OSS vendors don't make money from selling software, but from selling support and custom engineering services. This is going to become more important in the future as software and computer systems become more complex; you're going to need expert support. Or, as a vendor, you're going to see expanding opportunities. To succeed in F/OSS you need to be better, and that is a big win for customers.
F/OSS offers many benefits. You can't get locked in, and code quality and security are superior because anyone can inspect the code, and anyone can offer fixes and improvements. "Many eyes make all bugs shallow." Even if you never read so much as a line of code yourself, you can rely on a global community of developers and users who do interact intimately with the source code; you benefit from peer review.
The rate of advancement, or innovation if you prefer (another perfectly good word that has been overused to death), is much faster with F/OSS because there are no corporate bureaucracy impediments. There is a culture of ethics and trust, so it's very rare that you'll hear of F/OSS being larded up with commercial crapware and spyware. The cost of F/OSS is nearly always less than comparable proprietary software, because development costs are lower.
For more information, news, how-tos, training, and Linux events, make Linux.com a regular stop. Linux.com is operated by the Linux Foundation, which is ground zero for Linux. All the major tech vendors (IBM, Dell, HP, Intel, Google, and many more) support it, and the foundation employs Linus Torvalds, the inventor of Linux, and several other key Linux developers.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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