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What is Open Source Software?

Open Source Software (OSS) is software that is distributed with its source code, available for people to inspect, modify, and redistribute as one sees fit. It is also called FOSS (Free and open-source software) or Libre Software.

‘Source code’ is the set of instructions and statements written by a programmer using a programming language. It is the code that programmers can manipulate to control how the software or an application works. Only programmers who have access to the application’s source code can add or remove features to it through the code. Most people never see this part of the software as it is not made publicly available. Until the ‘open-source way’ of developing software came about, which is based on transparency and the collaborative way of improving a program.

A Brief History:

With the mainstream recognition of Linux and the release of the Netscape browser’s source code, programmers became interested in the phenomenon of open-sourcing software. The label ‘open source’ was created at a 1998 strategy session held in California shortly after the announcement of the Netscape source code. With the goal of understanding and learning more about it, a programmer from MIT, Richard Stallman began releasing free code under his own license called the GNU public license. This initiative eventually led to the formation of the ‘Open Source Initiative’ 1998.

How does OSS work?

The open-source code is usually stored in a public repository. An OSS license is free of charge and people can redistribute the modified software without any restrictions. The license can acquire improved versions of the software to carry a different name or version from the original. Some of the most popular licenses are:

Five of the most popular licenses are:

  • MIT License
  • GNU General Public License 2.0
  • Apache License 2.0
  • GNU General Public License 3.0
  • BSD License 2.0

The open-source way of developing software/applications is based on intellectual freedom and collaboration within the open-source community.  Developers share insights, ideas, and code to create more innovative software solutions both collectively and individually. This kind of peer production and mass collaboration helps create more sustainable software products for better reusability and accessibility. It has already driven creative and technological advancement in industries like education, health, manufacturing, management, law, etc.

Open Source Software (OSS) vs Closed Source Software (CSS)

Some software has source code only available to the individual, team, or organization who created it. They maintain exclusive rights over it. Only they can legally inspect. modify and distribute it. People call this type of software ‘proprietary’ or ‘close source’ software. To use such proprietary software, people need to sign a license displayed the first time of use it. They cannot do anything with the software that isn’t allowed by the legal terms and conditions.

Examples of proprietary software include Microsoft Windows, Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Photoshop, Google Earth, Skype, macOS, etc.

Unlike CSS, OSS is free and openly available to everyone. Communities of programmers all over the world work together or individually to develop and maintain the software and to support users. Open source products are usually tested in public by online contributors.

Some examples of open source software are:

  • Git: It is a version control system that lets you track the changes you made to a file. It is a very useful tool for individual or collaborative projects.
  • The Linux operating system: one of the most user-friendly OS; highly customizable, secure, and offers exceptional community support.
  • Mozilla Firefox: an internet browser available for Android, iOS, Windows, and Linux
  • Apache webserver application: it is a cross-platform web server. It is fast, secure, reliable, and highly customizable by using extensions and modules.
  • VLC Media Player: one of the most popular examples of OSS. It is a multimedia player used for audio, media, and video files. Available for Android, macOS X, Linux, Windows, iOS, and more.
  • WordPress: it is the most popular tool to build websites and web applications. Today, WordPress powers over 40% of all websites on the internet.
  • GIMP: a very popular photo editing tool that offers features like premium platforms. It has plenty of plugins and customization options, yet it is completely free.
  • LibreOffice: a complete office suite that offers presentations, documents, spreadsheets, and databases. It also has live chat and a forum for customer support.
  • Chromium: It is an open-source codebase for a web browser created and managed by Google. Google uses its codebase to make its Chrome web browser.
  • Virtual Box: It is cross-platform visualization software that allows users to run multiple operating systems on their computers.
  • Python: one of the most popular and common scripting and programming languages. It is easy to learn, versatile, used in machine learning and cloud computing.
  • PHP: it is a scripting language used for creating websites and other digital platforms. It powers popular websites like Spotify and Slack.

Why OSS?

Many companies and individuals prefer to use open-source software over proprietary or commercial software due to its versatility, security, community, evolution, and stability. Some advantages of open-source software are:

  1. It is secure: with so many talented and devoted developers contributing to improving a software application, any weak spots or vulnerabilities are quickly resolved. For commercial software, it usually takes weeks or months to solve security issues.
  2. It has impeccable quality: When millions of developers create and manage a software package, it is automatically better quality as compared to the ones made by a few developers.
  3. It cost less: OSS costs less because of the readily available administrative tools and resources. The situation varies from application to application but, less dependency on vendors and lower cost of ownership definitely give them an advantage over commercial software.
  4. It is highly flexible: The emphasis lies on the reduced dependency on vendors and distributors. When commercial software is upgraded, the older versions run out of support and compatibility. This isn’t the case for open-source software. OSS gives users the freedom to choose what to do and when to do it.
  5. Customizability: If you want to change a particular feature of a software application, you can easily modify, add, or delete the code. Proprietary software doesn’t allow you to make such drastic changes.
  6. The interoperability: Open source software is compatible with as many different software products as possible. Users may want to switch systems or link other computers and users. OSS allows all this.
  7. Audited and trusted by many: Since there are active communities of contributors and testers, you can easily find out if the software is secure and useful. Many third-party services and people may audit and approve it.
  8. Innovative: Many innovations in recent years like cloud computing, big data, artificial intelligence have happened in open-source platforms. 
  9. Useful in learning: Students, teachers, and novice developers can all learn openly using open-source software. In the technical field, you learn more through application than in theory. So, by inspecting, modifying, and experimenting with source codes, you can learn a lot.

There are also some disadvantages to open-source software including subpar user support, poor documentation, security vulnerabilities, less user-friendly, no warranty available, etc. But as the open-source solutions grow and improve, we will no longer see these disadvantages.

Open-source encourages joint effort and contribution. Most people value the community and the effectiveness in learning more than anything else. By using open-source software, we are placing the power from a corporation to the general public. It is for the people, by the people. And many companies and individuals are starting to recognize why open-source is the way to go.

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