What’s Open Source Software and Why Does It Matter?

You’ll often hear about open source software and systems, but what does it mean?

What’s meant by open source software, and why is it relevant? It matters more than you might think including not just to developers but to users as well. 

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The Basics of Open Source Software

Open-source software is something that has a source code that’s free and available to users. Users can take the free source code, change it and then distribute it as their own versions of the program. Users can also distribute as many copies of the original program as they want, and there are no restrictions on the software or licensing fees. 

Closed-source software, on the other hand, has a license that restricts how it can be used, and it restricts source code from users. 

When there is the removal of barriers, it allows for more of a free exchange of ideas. 

Software isn’t the only place the open-source concept is used either. It’s also seen in industries like electronics and robotics, as well as education. 

For software to be considered open source, the organization agrees that all of the code is available to the public. Anyone can change or enhance the code as they like, and it allows the creation of what are known as derivative works. Open source code can also be used for whatever the user wants. 

With a proprietary software agreement, on the other hand, the user agrees only to use software as outlined by the manufacturer. Anyone who tries to copy or change the code could have legal action taken against them. 

Interestingly, the internet is open source, or at least the foundational elements of the internet stem from open source technology. Two examples of these elements are the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server application. 

Some global companies like Google have also made some of their innovations open source. 

Other popular types of open source technology include the Firefox web browser, PHP scripting language, and the Thunderbird email client. 

Where Does the Idea of Open Source Come From?

Open source was initiated in technology. Programmers and engineers would often create new technology through the use of collaboration with one another. Knowledge-sharing was critical in technology development, which is why open source made sense. 

In 1998, something called the Open Source Initiative, which is a non-profit, was founded. The Open Source Initiative or OSI administers open source licensing globally and also promotes education. 

What Are the Pros and Cons of Open Source Software?

As with anything, there are pros and cons of open-source software. 

For developers, pros include the fact that there are communication tools so that they can work with one another on new ideas and to find solutions to problems. There is also widespread bug-tracking, and task lists and testing can be automated as can debugging. 

Generally, a big pro of open source software is that it’s cost-effective. These solutions are typically free, and even if they’re not free it’s only because of third-party products that have to be used with them. If you have per-license software, open-source can mean you save a lot of money.

Perhaps one of the main benefits of open source software is that it’s always being improved upon. Communities form around these software platforms so they can update it as necessary and troubleshoot issues. The community can add valuable new features and make improvements as they go without the need to get permission to do so. 

Of course, open-source software is highly customizable as well so you can make it what you need it to be without starting from scratch. 

What about the cons?

First, there are ongoing costs that you have to think about. Open source in the short-term is free, but you may have to pay for things like maintenance and support over time, and these costs can add up. 

It can also be challenging to learn an open-source product. 

One of the biggest possible risks of anything open source is that the project could be abandoned by the community surrounding it. There’s no guarantee there will always be that community, and if that happens then you are the one responsible for all needed updates. 

When weighing the pros and cons, most do find the value of open-source outweighs the potential downsides but still these downsides do need to be a consideration.