Open Source was born out of the Free Software movement pioneered by Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman, Founder of the Free Software Foundation

You use Open Source software everyday, probably without knowing it.
So what is it and why is it important?

You may have heard of the terms "Free Software" and "Open Source Software" but do you know what they mean?

You may think that these terms refer simply to software that is distributed free of charge. After all, there are some well know examples of Open Source applications such as Open Office, a substitute for Microsoft's Office package, or Firefox, an alternative to Internet Explorer which are available for free.

But there is more to it than cost (or lack of it), and anyone who thinks that such applications are simply freebies given away because they are pale imitations of better known packages and aren't worth paying money for, is entirely missing the point.

Free and Open Source software (often refered to as FOSS) may often be available for no charge but that is merely a consequence of the development process. The crucial point to make is that when referring to FOSS the word "Free" does not refer to value but to liberty.

History

It began with a man named Richard Stallman who in the early 80s worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a programmer.

His department received a new printer which was prone to paper jams and long queues of people looking for their printouts. Stallman decided that a lot of frustration could be alleviated by simply amending the printer driver software to inform users when the printer had jammed.

But when he asked Xerox for the source code, so that he might make the necessary improvements to the software, the reply he received incensed him. Their emphatic "no" was consistent with the policy of all who develop proprietary software; that the source code is top secret and the end user only has a license to use the software, not to amend or improve it. Stallman's view was that this was morally indefensible since they, the end users, were not receiving the best experience from the printer or the software and were being deprived of the right to improve it.

Freedom

This experience led him to create the Free Software Foundation whose goal is to encourage the development of software that is Free in the sense that anyone would have the right to amend it, improve it, adapt it and share the results of those amendments with the wider community for the benefit of all.

Specifically, the freedoms attributed to Free Software are:

  • You have the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
  • You have the freedom to modify the program to suit your needs. (To make this freedom effective in practice, you must have access to the source code, since making changes in a program without having the source code is exceedingly difficult.)
  • You have the freedom to redistribute copies, either gratis or for a fee.
  • You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the program, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.

This may have seemed radical at a time when proprietary software houses such as Microsoft were on the rise and the expanding market of new computer users readily accepted the principle of buying a restrictive license just to use their software. And to most, the threat of prosecution for anyone who tried to copy or alter this software may have seemed entirely reasonable. But actually, Stallman's idea simply harked back to earlier days when computers were the sole preserve of large corporations, government departments and universities.

In the 1960s and early 70s programmers like Stallman were employed directly by the people who owned computers. Programmers then had no qualms about sharing their source code with other programmers no matter where they were or who they were employed by. In fact everyone benefitted from this practice. Programmers benefitted by not having to repeat work that others had already done. They benefitted by having a fresh set of eyes picking up bugs in their own work or seeing a better way to achieve the same thing or by having entirely new programs developed from their original routines which were then shared back with them. And employers benefitted by effectively employing more programmers than they actually paid for.

In short, this informal community of programmers found that by sharing their code, better software could be produced at a faster rate.

In order to create a world where software was Free, Stallman decided it would first be necessary to create a Free operating system. To this end he began work on GNU which aimed to be a Free replacement for the popular (in the corporate world) UNIX operating system. (GNU stands for GNU is Not Unix).

GNU/Linux

The most effective argument in favour of his endeavours came from his failure to create the core of the operating system. Over four years he wrote many applications and utilities that would be a part of the operating system but the core or kernel was never quite finished. However, Linus Torvalds, a young Finnish student, independently wrote a Unix-like kernel for his own use and because of the Free nature of Stallman's work was able to marry the two projects together to create a complete operating system which should be called GNU/Linux, but much to Stallman's annoyance is more often shortened to Linux.

Linux was released to the world in the early 90s as an entirely Free operating system and programmers everywhere were able to take part in its future development. Because of its Free nature it has been adapted and used in many different areas. It is the most widely used operating system on Internet servers, it is used in routers, cash machines and mobile phones and it is used on over 400 of the world's top 500 super computers. If the fastest, most expensive computers in the world use a Free operating system, it's not because their owners can't afford something better. Linux is famed for its stability and security and this too is attributed to its open development

Many versions of Linux have been created by different individuals and companies, all of them sharing their work back with each other.

The Internet, built by technical people who loved to share their work is itself a testament to the benefits of code sharing with most of the software that drives the Web, email and other services of the Internet being Free.

Open Source

But what of the term "Open Source" and how is it different to "Free Software"?

In 1998 a group of people came together to promote Free software to the business community which largely believed that anything that was given away couldn't be any good. It was decided that the word "Free" was too ambiguous and was generally taken the wrong way. So they decided on the term "Open Source"

Where Stallman and the Free Software movement believe that software Feedom is a moral imperative - a human right, the Open Source movement has taken a more pragmatic approach. They argue that sharing source code simply leads to better software. It is therefore a development methodology and nothing more. To many people the two are indistinguishable and are lumped together under the heading FOSS.

Open for Business

The big question that many people ask is how anyone makes any money from developing software that is simply given away. Surely, even programmers have to eat some time.

The answer depends on the size of the project and who the main developers are.

At the top end there are companies like RedHat that develops enterprise versions of Linux. They are a Billion Dollar company and they make their money by selling support to the large companies and institutions who want backup for their free operating systems.

The fact is that if you are clever enough you can download Redhat's source code and compile your own copy of their operating system for nothing. And if you're not clever enough then someone else has done it for you. CENTOS, which stands for Community Enterprise Operating System is simply RedHat's software compiled by volunteers and renamed. And whereas any proprietary software house would have the full weight of the law on top of anyone who tried to do that with their software, in the Open Source world, this is perfectly acceptable behaviour. So a world class enterprise operating system becomes available to small businesses with limited budgets for absolutely nothing.

There are now open source projects in every area of software application and it is certainly worthwhile studying the field before making a financial commitment to better known proprietary brands. And not just to save money. You may be swayed by the principles of Open Source, that freedom to do what you want with the software is important.

Another argument for FOSS is that you can avoid being locked into using software from just one company.

Government Endorsement

In February 2009, the UK government advised that all government departments should consider using Open Source solutions where it offered best value for money and that they should where appropriate take part in the development of Open Source software. This would mean software that was tailored for use in government circles would be shared back with the wider community and even allowing that community to contribute to the debugging and improvement process.

In a further nod to the general area of software freedom, they have also endorsed the use of Open Document Formats and you will now find all Office documents available on government websites are accompanied by documents that are readable by Open Source applications such as Open Office and IBM Lotus Symphony. And even Microsoft Office from version 2007 with service pack 2 onwards, is now able to read and write to this Free and Open format.

If you have any questions about Open Source Software alternatives, and how it may save you money, please call Clover Consultancy on 01823 336220.

Every business is different, so we tailor solutions around you to fit your needs and budget.

 
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