Open source refers to software whose source code is available to the public. As such, people are free to examine, modify, and distribute the code.
The term was coined by Christine Peterson to replace the “free software” label. The free source movement thought that the label doesn’t emphasize the availability of source code, so there was an urgency to create a new term.
In this article, I will explain what makes open-source software important, what to consider when using it, and how it differs from closed source and free software.
What Makes Open Source Important?
For one, the internet is powered by various open-source software. For instance, up to 96.4% of websites run on servers using Linux, an open-source operating system.
And it’d be wrong not to mention WordPress, an open-source content management system which supports 59.7% of websites. These statistics alone should tell you how instrumental open source software is for the internet.
But what makes open source so valuable?
An important part of open source as a movement is that it encourages collaboration in software development. Since the source code and the resources are made publicly available, everyone can contribute to improving a program.
For example, the WordPress community has played a large part in the platform’s success. They have created thousands of features — like plugins and themes — that make WordPress highly customizable.
Open source also provides freedom to alter a program. Since you’re not bound to work with the software as is, you can edit its core to your liking.
Beginner programmers can also benefit from these programs as they can study and test how the software works. What’s more, they can copy the source code for their own projects. Open source platforms like EdX and The Odin Project are good starting points for new programmers.
Open Source Licenses
Open-source programs are released under open source licenses, which can be largely divided into two: copyleft and permissive licenses.
Once a program is licensed, the owner can submit it to the Open Source Initiative (OSI). This organization will review and ensure that the software’s quality is up to par.
Copyleft licenses compel users who alter source code to release the modified version as open-source software as well.
This is called the reciprocity obligation, meaning if you’ve been permitted to edit the original source code, others must be allowed to do the same thing to your version.
Additionally, you must signify the changes you’ve made, and others must use the same license or a compatible alternative when releasing their versions. That way, the source code will always be publicly available.
Permissive licenses don’t require you to publicize the source code of the modified program. Furthermore, users are allowed to list their software version under a different license.
Unlike copyleft licenses, developers can release their modified programs as closed software. Thus, there’s no guarantee that future versions of the software will remain available to the public.
What to Consider When Using Open Source Software?
Despite the opportunities presented by using open source software, there are several factors you need to consider.
Generally, open-source programs are free of charge. However, you might need to make other expenses depending on the software’s business model.
Some software products are free, but their proprietary versions might be aimed at businesses or companies. For instance, MySQL has commercial editions for businesses and enterprises.
These commercial editions usually offer many perks. Ubuntu’s enterprise subscription, for example, gives its users 24/7 support, consulting services, long-term software updates, and many more.
In other cases, the core software might be free, but you need to pay to enjoy additional features. A perfect example of this case is WordPress premium plugins and themes.
Ultimately, how much you spend on open source software will depend on your needs.
One great thing about working on open source projects is its big community support. Each software usually has its own forums and communities, like Linux and WordPress forums. What’s more, you can also join other platforms like GitHub and SourceForge, to seek further assistance.
However, a community is not the same as a 24/7 customer service. Thus, it might be difficult to find quick solutions from an expert when urgent issues arise.
Furthermore, these developers are not required to help you, and you might end up having to fix the problems yourself. Therefore, check whether the community is active or not. If it is, there is a higher chance for you to get assistance should you need it.
A common belief about open source software is that it is more vulnerable. Since everyone can see the structure of your software, they can also figure out its weaker spots.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t always mean the software is more prone to security issues.
Open source projects encourage the community to spot security issues and fix them, making the software more secure from various threats.
Even so, to fix them, the developers must be equipped with the necessary knowledge to do so.
A recent study shows that 70% of open source users lack security knowledge. This fact is particularly concerning since the study also discovers that there’s a rise of vulnerabilities in open source programs.
As such, the security of the software depends on the skills of the community when dealing with bugs and other threats.
Open vs. Closed Source Software
Closed source software, or proprietary software, is one where the creator keeps the source code confidential to maintain copyright. Typically, you must sign a non-disclosure agreement if you want access to the code.
The following criteria also make closed source different from open source:
- Exclusive rights – the license owner has the freedom to manage how other people use their software.
- Limited use – in many cases, licenses of proprietary software is valid for a limited time (often one year).
- Restricted redistribution – depending on the license, commercial redistribution is either limited or not allowed.
Mozilla is an open-source browser with its own Mozilla Public License. This license guarantees that developers who use Mozilla’s source code will release their changes to the public. At the same time, it allows anyone to use the modified Mozilla for commercial purposes.
Mozilla’s developer team also has a guide that explains how developers can contribute to the software. As a result, many developers have tinkered with Mozilla’s source code to improve the browser or even create new ones.
Safari, on the other hand, is listed as closed source software. Although you can download the software multiple times, you can neither modify nor commercially redistribute it. You can only use the software as is.
Open Source vs. Free Software
Many people like to switch the term “open source software” with “free software,” and it’s become unclear how they differ. At a glance, they might refer to the same thing, but in practice, they don’t.
The ‘free’ in “free software” refers to “freedom” instead of “free of charge.” Thus, it’s not about the software’s cost. Instead, it’s about how a program is used, modified, and distributed.
A program has to fall under the following categories to be considered as free software:
- Freedom 0 – the program can be run however you want.
- Freedom 1 – the source code is available for examination and modification.
- Freedom 2 – the program’s copies can be redistributed to assist others.
- Freedom 3 – the modified program’s copies can be distributed for the benefit of others.
In short, free software must remain public, and users can do whatever they want with it. Hence, free software uses copyleft licenses, so no developers can create proprietary software.
On the other hand, as explained before, open-source software can be released under permissive licenses. Unlike copyleft, these licenses allow users to publish their changes as proprietary software and kept the source code to themselves.
You can say that free software is also open source because its code will always be made available for the public. However, open-source programs that use permissive licenses will not be considered as free software.
It is important to note that even though free software requires developers to release the source code, it doesn’t mean that they are not allowed to make a profit. GNU even encourages the community to charge a fee when redistributing copies of free software.
For this reason, the term free software can be quite confusing since most people think that it refers to software that comes with no charge.
To make everything clearer, researchers come up with terms Free Open Source Software (FOSS) and Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) to refer to software that is both free and open source.
Open-source software means that its source code is free to be examined, modified, and distributed by anyone for any purpose.
The open-source movement is important because it embraces collaboration in software development. Users can also benefit from open source software because they can tailor a program to their preferences.
Before using open-source software, consider its cost, support, and security.
Read more about the premium features and decide whether you need them, and go to the community forums to see if support is available. Furthermore, be sure to see how the developers handle security issues and what do they offer to make the software more secure.
Now you’ve gained new knowledge about open-source software. I hope this article helps you understand the type of software you’re using.