What is Open Source?

by

Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is very simple:

  • Quality
  • Higher Reliability
  • Flexibility
  • Lower Cost
  • End to Predatory Vendor lock-ins

The Benefits Of Using Open Souce Software For Website Development And Application Development

Free coding for website and application development has many benefits. The most commonly held belief is that the software is desirable because it has no associated cost. As discussed above, however, this is not always the case. Non-proprietary software is not the same as freeware.

The real benefit in this approach lies in the user’s ability to modify the software. As Richard Stallman says, “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Non-proprietary software can be adapted and improved to meet almost any need, and the ability to make changes to the code means that large groups of developers are constantly adjusting the programming and striving to create the perfect website framework.

While some non-proprietary programs can be purchased as premium versions and offer subscriptions to support services, most are supported by large groups of talented developers who want to create a better product. WordPress, Drupal, Magento and Joomla as well as the software, databases and programming languages that those CMS platforms run on such as LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) are all examples of non-proprietary software programs that were developed by thousands of developers.

How Open Source Code Is Developed

Open source development projects begin when a developer sees a need for a particular application. The developer writes code for software that will address the need. In a proprietary company, this is all kept a closely guarded secret. With free software, the developer publishes the code in a location where other people can see it, download it, and manipulate it. Open source development projects are posted on many sites for programmers to access. The code is published under a non-restrictive license, such as the GNU General Public License, to ensure that it remains non-proprietary after publication.

The developer could write entirely new code from scratch, but probably uses free code that is already available to solve parts of the problem being addressed. The developer might use the code as it is or might modify it to suit a particular need or to make an improvement.

Through trial and error, working in a collaborative fashion with other members of the development community, open source development ultimately results in new and improved software. Each new programmer brings a new and unique perspective to the project and may make a change or add code that no one has considered before. The entire process is very informal. A project may be finished quickly, or it may fall to the side and never be completed. It may have thousands of contributors working on it, or it may be completed by a single developer.

What Is The Open Source Initiative?

Source code is the readable text form of software. Some software has source code that is protected, and cannot be viewed, but open souce software is written in code that can be accessed and changed by any user with the necessary programming skills. It is published under special licensing to ensure that the source code is available for any user to download, explore, and modify. Proponents of such non-proprietary code believe that public collaboration on projects ultimately results in improvement to the code and to the development of new applications that were not anticipated in the initial programming.

The licensing agreements for this type of software specifies that the original author retains certain rights, that any products ultimately derived from the code must remain non-proprietary, that the software may be used or changed for any purpose, and prohibits any discrimination in the distribution or availability of the original software or of any derived products.

Open souce software is often called free software, but the two terms are not synonymous. Although non-proprietary software is usually available at no cost, there is sometimes an associated subscription fee for support or for a premium version with additional features.

The History Of The Open Source Initiative

Software was not always the commodity that it is today. In the early days of computing, the hardware was the product and the software was simply a means to use the product. Companies routinely distributed source code with a machine so that customers could modify the software to enable the machine to run on a certain operating system or to interact with specific hardware. This was long before software checked its own environment upon installation.

In the 1970s, software emerged as a stand-alone product. New operating systems and computer programming language compilers created a unique development environment for programmers. While hardware manufacturers sought to promote their own brand by including bundled software, software companies sought to offer improved code or products that operated on competing systems. Bundled software/hardware systems had an advantage, because the development cost of the bundled software was buried in the cost of the hardware.

The government filed an antitrust lawsuit against IBM in 1969, alleging that bundled software was a noncompetitive practice that unfairly hindered the development of competing products. The result of this action was an exponential growth of software development companies. The companies sold software with restrictive licensing, protected by copyrights, and subject to new legal measures.

Richard Stallman, an American computer programmer and outspoken critic of proprietary software, began working as a programmer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1971. This was at a time when it was still common for source code to be distributed with products. Stallman and his co-workers had modified the code for a laser printer located on a different floor of the laboratory. Unlike an out-of-the-box model, this printer had been customized to send a message to the user when a print job had completed. If there was a paper jam, the printer would notify all waiting users of the problem. This was very convenient to the users. It stopped them from walking upstairs prior to the completion of their print job and ensured that people knew when there was a problem with the paper flow.

By the time the laboratory installed a new Xerox laser printer in 1980, prevailing practices had changed and Xerox no longer provided source code with products. According to Stallman, the resulting inconvenience was the crystallizing event that convinced him of users’ need to be able to modify software they have purchased. He immediately began working on projects that would rival propriety software.

In 1983, Stallman launched a free Unix-like operating system called GNU, and in 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation. He is known for his saying “free as in freedom, not free as in beer” and saw nothing wrong with the sale of software, but he strenuously objected to the concept that source code could be proprietary and unavailable to users who purchased the software.

Some of his associates, notably Eric Raymond and Tim O’Reilly, disagreed with Stallman’s vehement stance against intellectual property rights. They felt that his often-abrasive remarks were driving potential supporters away from the Free Software Foundation. In a lasting schism, they distanced themselves from Stallman and began promoting the open source initiative rather than the phrase free software. Stallman is still very much opposed to the term, and he has been known to refuse interviews where the media will not consistently use the term free software instead of open source.

The GNU Project, which Stallman says stands for the phrase GNU not Unix, has resulted in the GNU C compiler, the Emacs editor and the Linux kernel that was ultimately developed by Linus Torvalds. The most common non-proprietary license in use today is the GNU General Public License that was developed specifically for the GNU Project. The Linux kernel was released under the GNU General Public License in 1992. Popular free software products such as WordPress, Drupal, Magento and Joomla are only possible today because of Stallman’s early stance against restrictive licensing.