What is open source?

So I think before I can get into the juicy details of open source and Linux configuration I need to explain what it is and, more importantly, what I mean by it. If you are a long time user of open source or free software and Linux than you know that this issue comes with a considerable amount of baggage.  If you are new than just be aware that baggage exists and that people disagree within the movement. I try to stay away from the fragmentation and bantering and stick to what really makes open source great: openness. So what is open source? I am going to stick with open source as it relates to computers, but the actual movement or ideology is starting to seep into all facets of life from education to government and even music. So here we go with what I mean by open source. Open source programs are those computer programs where the source code is freely available and alterable; often these programs are given away for free. Now you can find other definitions and there are more nuances but for the purposes of programs that I use and will write about this definition works.

So how is this different from Microsoft or Mac products? Well when you purchase Microsoft Office that is it. They control everything, how it is installed, how you can use it, what you can add to it, what type of machine you are allowed to install it on. Open source doesn’t have any of those limitations. You can install it anywhere you can get it to compile. You can see the full source code and make any changes or additions that you wish. You can even take the entire source code and start a new product from that source code. The only limits are your imagination and ability. The trade off is that most open source software comes with no warranty or support, but is free and flexible while closed source comes with warranty and support, but is costly and limiting.  That highlights the best and worst of both worlds. Because open source is free and non-limiting innovation happens at a very fast pace with many users supplying code and bug fixes in real time at their leisure, and if you don’t like where a product is headed you can start a new project using the source code from the original. But for closed source you are dependant on the vendor to fix bugs and update the software and often closed source vendors block competition or innovation that doesn’t come from within the company. On the flip side since so many people offer code for open source and it is so flexible it often is cumbersome and can be finicky at times (there is such a thing as too many options). Whereas closed source has professional developers devoting the better part of their day to ensure that the product you bought is everything you want.

So which one is better? Well I am not an open source Nazi. I think both open and closed systems have their place, which is one of the areas that carries a lot of baggage in the open source world, it is a matter of what fits the job best. If you are a gamer than you probably won’t like Mac OS or Linux very much, because both are limited by vendor acceptance, so you will likely choose Windows for games. Graphic designers tend to like Mac for their OS needs and that is fine. Programmers often like Linux. You choose whatever works best for your situation. That said I prefer open source to closed source because it is free (both monetary and freedom/flexibility). However, I am not apposed to hybrid methods or closed source solutions where they are needed.

Hopefully this helps clarify what I mean by open source and hopefully I didn’t loose you in details. From here I’ll start some tutorials on getting started with Linux. Stay tuned.

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4 Comments on “What is open source?”

  1. bfpower Says:

    This is a really interesting post. I’ve been learning a lot about ‘free as in speech’ in reading about the open source concept. I also like the ‘free as in beer’ approach, though I too think that closed source and paid licensing have their place. It’s definitely an interesting issue as the concept of closed source pervades other areas of capitalism outside of software development. But in reality, openness creates better competition because it helps avoid monopolies and advances business or technology as a whole more rapidly. I will be very interested to see this concept develop as time goes on.

  2. mrosedale Says:

    Well that is good. If you noticed the picture I attached is Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. I haven’t read the book just yet, but I do follow the concepts pretty well. He is a Faculty fellow at the Berkman center out of Harvard and I follow their work pretty closely as well. I have a feeling that there will be some posts about both entities in future :-).


  3. […] but more importantly he engenders the open source and Linux attitudes that I was describing in my earlier post. It is interesting to note that so far all of the money that he has put into Ubuntu and Canonical […]


  4. […] shows again how open source goes far beyond just a way to develop software. It can be used in hardware, or business practice […]


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