|To some extent OSS already has. Although Microsoft Windows XP is closed-source and is the default OS for about 95% of computers distributed today, the number of new systems shipping with the open source alternatives known as GNU/Linux is growing. Many large software companies are adopting Open Source policies at least in some small manner, in an effort to increase their appeal to customers ("The Truth about Freeware," 2005, issue 21:p. 9).|
What exactly is Open Source? The Open Source Initiative (OSI) has developed a simple definition. The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, and people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing OSI has also developed a legal definition which they continually revise as more IT professionals and consumers are developing new technologies. (Open Source Initiative).
The origins of the official Open Source Definition came from "The Debian Free Software Guidelines" written by Bruce Perens in 1997. Debian is a distribution of Linux, and by definition, is an Open Source operating system. Later Perens removed the references to Debian and created the official "Open Source Definition" which is used today to govern the use and development of all software deemed Open Source (Open Source Initiative).
The Open Source Definition can be found at online at www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php and includes many guidelines for OSS. Under the open source license, OSS must include the free distribution of the compiled software and the source code must also be included. Any future modifications to the source code and the compiled version must also be distributed under the same license. Additionally, the license states, The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons. And The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. This means that governments, businesses, public and private organizations must be allowed to use the software and source code without restriction. The creators and distributors of OSS also cannot require any additional licenses or product keys. Free software that does require additional licenses is known as Shareware. The rights attached cannot be dependent on any particular software distribution. One thing that the Open Source License cannot do is impose its own restrictions on closed source software that happens to be distributed on the same medium as the OSS (Open Source Initiative).
Despite all the restrictions that the OSI has imposed upon the open source license, more people are choosing OSS and open source operating systems over the traditional closed-source versions because they are free. OSS is not only free in the monetary sense, but also in the sense that the technology behind it is freely accessible to anyone who wants to see or modify it. For consumers who are willing to get their hands dirty by editing software code, OSS provides a new frontier to explore. Open Source is not as much about monetary exchange, or even the lack thereof, as it is about the free exchange of information and ideas. A quote from George Bernard Shaw sums up the reasons behind Open Source. If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have an apple. But if you have an idea and I have and idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas (The Open Source Car, 2005 issue 45:p. 24).
Users, who are not willing to delve into the source code and wish to remain only end users, can easily update their version of the software by looking on the Internet for updates and enhancements to their particular program. Unlike most commercial software and operating system vendors, OSS developers and distributors cannot and will not charge for upgrades to OSS. Support for OSS is also free and comes from many different sources. When OSS users seek help from the many distributors of OSS, they need only point their Internet browser to a search engine and type the name of the software or the programmer. The user is almost instantly bombarded by the hits for user-defined upgrades, enhancements, and tips. Although users cannot file law suits for losses due to bugs in OSS, most closed source software distributions include a similar clause in their own license. As a result, the reliability of OSS becomes more of an honor system. What software engineers want their name muddied up by glitches that cause a loss of data? Most Open Source software is fully functional before its release, and glitches are often fixed with online patches days after they are discovered. As a result of the great number of code-smart consumers and freelance software gurus, OSS bugs are usually fixed faster than those in commercial software controlled by larger corporations can even be identified.
OSS software suites are good for the consumer because they are free of charge and just as reliable as their expensive counterparts. OSS has an effect on the software market that most commercial software manufacturers see as a threat or, at best as a mixed blessing. Although fewer consumers are likely to commit software piracy if a free alternative with no legal ramifications is readily available. If the power and reliability of the commercial version of a software suite is available in a free clone, a wise consumer would opt for the clone hands down. As a result, many commercial software companies are moving to an open source alternative, and charging only for technical support. Microsoft is calling meetings to discuss a better working environment with the OSI (http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1791085,00.asp). Through collaboration with the Open Source community, Microsoft and other commercial vendors can improve their own technology by opening portions of their own code to open source developers. Both the OSS developers and the commercial developers can benefit through the enhanced compatibility that would come from such collaboration.
OSS is not free of legal worries however, since certain OSS distributions are rumored to contain closed source code that was obtained illegally. There are also legal battles over copyright infringements on names or terms used. It is likely that these copyright issues on intellectual property are merely a growing pain for the open source world and that the expansion of OSS will not be hindered in the least. Because of the popular demand for free software, OSS has secured a place in society and wont soon go away.
Governments are beginning to consider OSS in their own computers, despite the claims that Open Source makes it easier for hackers to adversely affect OSS because they have free access to the source code. Security in Linux is not much of an issue because right down to the core of its code, Linux is more secure than Microsoft Windows has ever been. The municipal government in Munich, Germany, has switched to Linux as an alternative to the expensive Microsoft Windows. Microsoft tried to underbid SuSE, the distributor of the Linux distribution to be installed on the citys computers and offered many non-standard options to the policy, but Munich chose Linux over Windows because they did not want to be dependent upon any one organization, and also did not want to be bound by the terms Microsoft has on regular mandatory upgrades to new Windows operating systems and Microsoft Office suites. Other governments in Europe are also switching to Linux, or in Frances case, Open Office. Open Office is an OSS alternative to MS Office available for Windows, Linux and Apple Macintosh (http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html).
Open Source is a term that is fairly limited to computers and software, but the concept is being applied to other venues as well. There is an initiative for an Open Source Car that would provide a free model of a lower-cost automobile that promises to be more fuel efficient, and friendlier to the environment (The Open Source Car, 2005 issue 45:p. 24).
One could even consider the study of anatomy as a form of Open Source with the advent of cloning research. For years, the Food and Drug Administration has mandated that the ingredients be listed on the label of an FDA approved product. Cookbooks and TV cooking shows have always been a form of open source, freely sharing the recipe with homes worldwide.
While the future of Open Source and subsequently closed source is uncertain, the lessons learned by both sides will surely affect the future of software development and distribution for years to come. OSS may lose its luster if large corporations continue to use solely proprietary code and file types, and OSS would simply not be compatible with commercial versions. Alternatively, OSS could make closed source obsolete, and effectively hijack the market. Regardless of the future of open source software, the impact has been made and the world loves free information.
The Truth About Freeware PC Tools 21 (2005, Febuary): 8-9. Live Publishing International Ltd. <http://www.livepublishing.co.uk/>
The Open Source Car Linux User & Developer 45 (2005, January) 24. HME Publishing Ltd.
Wheeler, David A. Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS, FLOSS, or FOSS)? Look at the Numbers! (2005, April) Retreived May 8, 2005 from the World Wide Web: