Could you give us an overview about what open source is?
I've been asked by BBC Bitesize to answer some questions before an audio interview that may feature on some new content they're producing. This is the section about Open Source that includes three questions.
3. Could you give us an overview about what open source is?
Open source is both an approach and, when applied to Open Source Software (OSS), a specific type of software. With proprietary software (for example, most apps downloadable from Apple App Store) you cannot see the source code - the human-readable computer language - that makes the software run as it does. OSS is different in that the source code is made publicly available by the copyright holder so that, in alignment with GNU's definition of free software other people can study it, change it, and distribute it without cost or restriction.
OSS is usually developed in a particular 'Open Source' way. This is a highly collaborative, usually distributed approach where developers work together to build software using the internet. Currently, the de facto place to look for Open Source software development is GitHub There are a variety of licences available to those developing Open Source Software. Some of the most common are the GNU General Public Licence, the MIT Licence, and the Apache Licence.
4. What are the benefits of open source software?
There are at least five benefits of OSS:
- - OSS lowers Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) as it is usually free of charge.
- - OSS is usually built on open standards meaning individuals and businesses can avoid vendor lock-in.
- - OSS includes access to the source code meaning you can change and adapt it for your particular context.
- - OSS allows you to access the kind of support you require - including free support provided by the community.
- - OSS gives you access to the source code meaning that you can see the status (including any bugs) of the software you rely upon on a day-to-day basis.
Over an above these specific advantages, developers can use existing code written for other OSS projects so that they don't have to 'reinvent the wheel'.
5. What are the disbenefits?
There are some large, well-funded examples of OSS (e.g. Mozilla Firefox, Ubuntu Linux, Apache OpenOffice that are built by both developers paid by organisations and volunteers alike. However, a great deal of OSS is created by developers in their spare time. This means that, for smaller projects, support requests and fixes can be slow in coming (if ever).
Secondly, some users without technical knowledge may find the world of OSS confusing and somewhat intimidating. They could find it difficult to know what the latest version of software to install and where to download it safely.
Another disadvantage when using OSS operating systems such as Linux is driver support. Drivers are the interface between the operating system and the hardware it is installed upon. If a hardware vendor does not release the source code of the drivers for their product then that product may remain incompatible with an Open Source operating system. An example of this might be the driver to enable wireless networking on your laptop.
Linus Torvalds, the original software architect of the Linux operating system, is famous for claiming that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." With OSS, so long as enough eyeballs are available, bugs and compatibility issues are usually resolved reasonably quickly. The problem is with OSS projects that do not gain traction. But even then, users do not suffer from vendor lock-in and can avoid switching costs.