What is open source software?

Question

What is open-source software and is it safe?

-Lars

Answer

This question was answered on March 23, 2006. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

The term ‘open-source’ has emerged from the ranks of the technically astute to the general public because of products like Linux and Open Office (a free alternative to Microsoft Office – www.openoffice.org) There was a time when open-source was touted as being “the end of the Microsoft empire” but in practice, it may have helped Microsoft gain even more allegiance for the time being (I’ll explain why later).

The two biggest reasons for considering open source software; if you are a programmer and want to control what your software does or if you want software that is very cost effective (generally free!)

The basic structure of any software programs is based on something called “source code” Think of it as the DNA of the software program that determines everything about how the program operates.

The statements and instructions contained in the source code are always protected in commercial software so that no one can alter the function of the program, unless they have access to the source code This business model is what allows software companies to continue to generate money on a specific program over time, by requiring users to request and purchase updates from the only entity that has control of the source code; the original author.

Open source software, on the other hand, is software that can be modified by anyone that knows how to work with the readily available source code The point of open source software is to allow the entire programming community to contribute to the development of the program and to share these ideas with others

This open environment also means that their really is no single “owner” of the evolving products and documentation for the thousands of changes is generally scarce or non-existent.

This also means that many different versions of essentially the same program can exist and may have completely different user interfaces and features.

The trade off for free comes in the limited support available for open-source programs It costs a lot of money to have large structured support mechanisms and there is not one to foot the bill in the free model.

Linux, which is an open source operating system that can be used instead of Microsoft’s Windows, is the most commonly used open source software It is completely safe, has many very tangible benefits and best of all is free, but remember, it will not allow you to run everything that is made for Windows on it.

The very ideal that makes open-source software attractive for one user can also be what makes it undesirable for another Technically astute users that don’t need much outside help, can use alternative programs and can work with other technically astute users via Internet forums and chat rooms tend to love open source software.

If you are an average user with limited tech skills and more importantly, limited time, you won’t like that response you get whenever you call someone for help on an open-source related support issue (sorry, we don’t support that!)

Despite all of the complaints about Windows, virtually every hardware and software product on the planet is designed to work with it With open-source products, you give the vendor an easy out when it comes to helping with a product that you just purchased, so be sure you understand all of the long term ramifications before you shed all of your commercial software.

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on March 23, 2006