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Is Open Source Software Good for Us?

If you are reading this, it is likely either on a mobile device or on a computer of some type. This means that you are using different pieces of software. First you have the operating system, then you have the browser that you are using. We could also branch a bit bigger and deal with the Internet provider and such as well, but the point of this is that we have to rely on different programs to do even the most basic tasks. Some of these are proprietary (like Internet Explorer and Windows), and some of it is absolutely free (Firefox, Chrome, Ubuntu and other flavors of Linux, etc.). Different people like different software, and there are many options for each program that we use on a regular basis.

This article is going to be taking a look at the open source software community from a very high level, as well as look at why it is good and what problems it creates. I will go ahead and start off by saying that I am a pretty big supporter of open source software, although I do realize its limitations at the same time. I think understanding these is important to better understand why some software will never be free, and why other pieces are.

The Number of Developers

When we look at software, there is one thing they all have in common: they have developers. No matter what the program is or how it works, someone has to have created it. This leads to a pretty massive difference between open source and proprietary software, and it is arguably one of the biggest.

When you are messing with proprietary software as a developer, the goal behind it is to not share the source. When you run in to problems, you may share small snippets of code here and there, but it is not a good idea to share the entire sources with people; especially not if they are strangers and are not people you work with or that are very close to you. If your source gets leaked, people will share it. This turns your proprietary software in to a free piece (arguing the fact that it is illegal to do this is irrelevant here; the simple fact is that it is going to happen and it needs to be something all developers are aware of). The point of all of this is that the number of developers is very limited. You may have just one or you could have a group. In either of these cases, you are still dealing with a pretty small pool of potential helpers.

Open source software is the complete opposite. Instead of doing everything you can to keep the source from being released and keep people from being able to make modifications, the goal is to get that source out to as many people as possible and get them involved. This does not just stretch out to the developing aspects, either; even if you can just get people to utilize the software, this will increase the community that backs it and will lead to more developers jumping on board. It can also lead to more donations towards keeping the project going, but that is an area we will be looking at a bit later in this article.

Bug Fixes and Exploits

This is an area that is almost always true, although not necessarily in every case. As we said before, the number of developers is pretty limited in the proprietary software. This also means that fewer people are going through the code and evaluating it, which means that any bugs and exploits fixed have to come from that small group. It also leads to fixes that can only come from that group, and if they are having problems plugging one of the holes there can be some big complications. For example, I have seen some games where bugs persist for years or are never even fixed because the developers either do not have the time or the knowledge of how to fix the problems.

With open source software, not only are there more developers that are able to contribute and match minds to work out and resolve problems, but there are also more eyes that are going over the code. What one person may not notice is a big thing that can be exploited could be seen by someone else that spots it. This is one of the bigger reasons why people claim that open source software (such as Linux) is more secure: with hundreds of thousands of developers that are constantly combing over the source and trying to break things, you have a significantly greater chance of plugging security flaws before they become an issue. On the other hand, we go back to the proprietary system where only a few people are able to see that code and therefore things are skipped over all the time.

Keep in mind that this in no way means that open source software does not have flaws or exploits. We still run in to them all of the time. But when they are found, they are closed pretty fast, and most of them that are found are fixed before they are an actual problem (for example, someone will find one in the source and report it before anyone is able to take advantage of it). This is important to realize because many people follow open source and assume that just because it is open source means that it can never be hacked. This is simply not true. While it is rare and far between in most cases (at least when there is a big community that is backing it up), it does still happen. So never put down your guard, and always be prepared for the worst.

The Costs

When we deal with the costs of software, different pieces come with different prices. Even if programs do the same thing and are mostly just like clones, one may be cheaper than the other. Some of this cost goes to development of features, some goes for security updates, some goes to company profit, some to support, etc. And some software is completely free and is still comparable. We often run in to the idea of “you get what you pay for” with this, but that is usually dealing with the support. Instead of having dedicated support channels, with free software you are usually pooled in a central area like forums to ask your questions in the hope that other members of the community will help contribute answers and assist you with your problems.

It is also important here to tell the difference between the types of software, because it does cause some confusion:

  • Proprietary software is created without sharing the source. It is not necessarily associated with a cost; it can be free as well. These we would call freeware
  • Open source must contain the source code and be freely available. There should be no cost for obtaining it
  • There is a hybrid model that costs money but shares the source. Contrary to belief, this is not classified as open source, because there is a charge for obtaining it

Paying for Development and Other Costs

All software has costs. If someone writes a script and does not charge money for their development time or to download the script, there was still a cost: their time. Nothing is free, and we pay for everything (or at least someone does) in some way or another. In the above case, for example, the developer donated their own time. They could have just as easily worked for that same amount of time and they would have earned money. Therefore, in a sense, they have made what can be considered as a monetary contribution to the project (despite not pulling out money and sending it over).

The point of this is that even open source software has its costs. For major projects, there are people who use all of their free time working to make it better. Some people will even quit their normal jobs to work on the projects full time. In both of these cases, the developers are sacrificing their own finances in one way or another to help out. This is important to understand because it is not even the only cost. There are also hosting costs, sometimes costs for different licenses or software, etc. All of these have to be paid from somewhere, and often times that ends up being through donations from other developers or people that use the software. Another way to view this is that instead of each person paying for their own license, everyone is contributing as a whole. While some people may not give anything, it is usually taken up by those who offer more. And some, rather than giving money, will donate their time instead. Both of these have their own value and both are highly desired.

The point here is that no software is truly free. If there is not contribution coming from one area or another (or multiple), the software is bound to crash and die. For smaller projects it will sometimes be easy enough for a single person to handle everything without any outside help, but when it comes to larger projects like operating systems and major programs (like Joomla), having a community that backs and supports the project is important for its livelihood.

This is one reason why some companies sell their software. Instead of relying on people making their own donations of money and time, anyone who uses the software has to contribute equally. This money allows them to hire new employees and deal with the various development tasks. While this does turn some people away from giving the software a try, for others it is a sign of security. There is less risk of the project just ending one day, and you usually get much better support since you are a paying customer.

There are open source projects that also offer personal training and support for a cost as well. For these projects, this money is contributed right back in to the development of the software and towards future features and fixes. This is kind of like a hybrid approach to the earning area; allowing people to go in free and allow those that need the extra help to be able to obtain it at a cost.

Sharing and Piracy

With the Internet and how easy it is to send files from one person to another, or to massive groups of people, it is no wonder that so many people end up pirating software. Whether it is games, operating systems or other pieces of software, piracy is a huge problem that we face on a regular basis. Sometimes it is because people do not want to pay for their software, sometimes it is because they just do not want to give any support to the company that created it (but still want to use the software), and sometimes there are other reasons behind it.

If proprietary software gets popular, we can expect it to get shared. People will attempt to reverse engineer it and alter it. People are going to give it away and sell it. Basically, whether there is a cost or not, it is still going to get around. Charging will still work for those that want to own it legally, but realizing that not everyone is going to end up buying it is important. The more blocks there are the harder it will be for people to share, but if the software is popular enough, it is going to happen regardless. The saying I always use is that if someone can create it, someone else can break it. Someone is always smarter, no matter who you are.

Open source software is different in that it is free. Anyone can download it and anyone can share it. Generally it can also be adapted to other purposes, changing the source around as needed. There is one rule, though, which is that the original credits need to stay in there. You can not take someone else's project that they created and released, then change the credits to show that you created it, and then start sharing it again. Many projects have been closed down due to people doing this, as the creators get annoyed (and with good reason) that they are not getting the credit they should be getting. This is a very annoying event, especially when the person that did the swapping did not even have to pay for the software to begin with. It is simply stealing credit.

Basically, open source can not really be “stolen,” per se, although we often classify it as being stolen when someone changes the credits. Past that, the software can be bundled or given away as often as anyone wants. In the case of Ubuntu, for example, you can even order free copies of the software on DvD so that you can pass it around, copy it and give them out, etc. to get more people involved with the operating system and hopefully bring on more developers and donators. Though you are not able to sell most of the software, and there are varying rules as to what you have to do with it prior to selling altered versions (which will all be located within the credit file).

Selling Additions for Income

I have seen a few programs that take the ideas from shareware and implement them in to their open source software in a way. For example, there may be two versions of a program: one of them has all of the features and the other is missing a lot of them. To get the rest of the features, you have to purchase them or make a donation. This gives the choice as to if you want to spend money or not (depending on what you are going for), while at the same time giving the programmer the ability to support themselves off their creation.

I have also seen some other ideas, such as selling custom plugins and releasing older versions of software for free and charging for the later ones. Since most of these programs are being updated at a fast rate and contain a lot of different things, it would be a hassle to keep trying to emulate what the developers are doing. Instead, it is easier to just pay a little bit of money to be able to download the latest version so you can keep the software updated and continue to use the latest and greatest features. In essence, it is the best of both worlds!

Leading in to the Future

I think that open source software will continue to get more and more popular as time goes on. It is an awesome balance between getting people involved and keeping people's cost down. When the economy goes down, people want to save more money. This can be done by picking free alternatives to the programs we normally use, rather than the paid versions that can take up an entire pay check. On top of this, we are also moving further and further in to the concept of crowd sourcing for releasing new games and such (this is how they get the money to handle the costs). This is related to open source in that really, it is something we are all working on together. Regardless of each person's specialty, everyone can help contribute in some way. Those who use the software can help report bugs they encounter. Those who can program can help with security hardening or updates and bug fixes. Those who are not really interested in getting involved on their own can help with offering free hosting mirrors or monetary contributions.

With security concerns growing with regards to the software we are used to, open source looks like the perfect solution. Many people, especially those that are more familiar with computers, will not even run software unless they are able to view and compile the source on their own instead of trusting whoever created it to be an honest person. Sadly, with proprietary programs all we can do is hope for the best and give them a chance if we want (or not use the software if we do not). As time goes on and technology progresses I expect that more and more people are going to be cautious, being that all of our important things are on computers, being more and more aware of our security is important to protect ourselves.

Conclusion

I used to have issues with understanding where open source comes from. I mean, when you can just as easily sell the software, why release it for free? Over time and after taking part in many different communities, my view has been altered. I have come to understand the greater good of open source, as well as how it benefits all other projects. Not only are we increasing the security of our programs and learning new tips and tricks from different projects, but we are also making contributions that are (in a sense) selfless. Through donations and extra purchases, even the open source world can benefit monetarily and can lead to people being able to work in the software business full time, without forcing everyone to pay money to use their programs. This is the future and I fully support it!

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