Free As In “Free”

Official logo for the Open Source Initiative.

There are a great many pieces of software we use everyday. Software from giants like Microsoft and Apple, to smaller, less known players in the game. All of these are made under a few different kinds of agreements. The three main types are open source, closed source, and shared source. All three of these have different ideas, meanings, and legal implications.

Closed source is the most popular form of distribution, mainly because it is what giants like Microsoft and Apple use. What this means is the source code (the building blocks) of their programs are not available for view or editing. This is good for them because that means they can charge for their programs and not worry about someone editing the code and releasing a better version of their software. In a way, it safeguards all the work they did so they are the only ones who can benefit monetarily is the company that originally released the software.

If Microsoft Office, for instance, was open source, we at Courika could compile our own version and release it to our customers. We would pocket the money, not Microsoft. But, Microsoft Office is closed source. We have to go through Microsoft to sell Office.

Open source, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. The people making the software are not doing it to make a profit. Companies like the Mozilla Foundation (makers of Firefox) and Canonical (makers of the Ubuntu operating system) are a couple open source giants. Their programs are all open source. We at Courika could compile our own version of Firefox and sell it. We wouldn’t have to go through Mozilla because the source is open. The same with Ubuntu. We could theoretically compile our own operating system based on Ubuntu and sell it.

There is an officiating force in open source software. The Open Source Initiative (the owners of the logo at the top of this article) have certain guidelines that must be followed for them to endorse your product with an Open Source Initiative License. With the license, the owner of the software can really show their customers that their software is completely open source. Not just because they say so, but because a tangible third-party says so. Among the companies licensed by the Open Source Initiative are Mozilla and NASA (OSI Licenses By Name).

Closed source programs have a few pros and cons. These programs are usually wildly expensive (read: Windows 7, Microsoft Office, etc). Also, they are sometimes less secure because the owning companies are the only ones seeing the building blocks. Open source software allows you to have a few more pairs of eyes. Closed source programs, however, usually look a lot nicer because they are built to make a profit (read: Apple computers).

Open source programs also have their own pros and cons. They are sometimes more secure because they have multiple eyes looking for holes. But, since anyone can edit the code, someone could theoretically put in their own holes for exploitation. Open source programs sometimes don’t look as nice as their closed source competitors (OpenOffice vs Microsoft Office). But, open source programs are usually a lot cheaper than closed source, or completely free. Firefox, OpenOffice, and Ubuntu are just a few examples of completely free software.

Don’t think that just because a program is free it is open source. There are plenty of free closed source programs. Generally speaking, free refers to freedom when speaking of source codes. Not free as in no charge. Windows Live Writer is a free blog editing software, put out by Microsoft, but it is not open source.

Also, not all open source programs are just free, ugly versions of a closed source program. Ubuntu, the free linux-based operating system, is a very beautiful system. It is powerful, secure, and completely free. By free, I mean that the cost is nothing and the source code is readily available.

There is one other kind of program. It is refered to as mixed source. It means that the source code is available, but it is illegal to edit it or redistribute it. Basically, it is just there so you can see how the program is made and let the owner know of any holes in the software. This is confusing because many people think that if you can view the source, then it must be open source. That level of thinking is wrong. To qualify as open source, you must be able to freely edit and redistribute the source code with no payment to the company.

At Courika Solutions, we usually recommend open source software to our customers, as long as it is good for the customer. Many of the servers we deploy run a open source, linux variant. By default, we install OpenOffice and Mozilla Firefox on the computers we ship out the door.