Ask LH: What’s The Deal With Open Source?

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Dear Lifehacker, I hear you mention open source software fairly often, but I don't quite understand what that means in relation to what I use everyday. Any help? Thanks, Openly Confused about Open Source

Dear Openly,

Excellent question! Unless you're a developer or have dabbled in programming the whole concept of open source software may be a bit confusing, so let's start with the basics.

All software has source code behind it. This is code written by the developers in whatever programming language they chose. This code is usually compiled, eventually, into a form that your computer can understand. With this compiled code (what you'll see as an EXE program or something similar), your computer can run it, but you can't see any of the underlying code. The original developers still retain the original (or source) code and can do with it what they wish, including making changes or adding features. Through what is basically reverse engineering, knowledgeable users can still hack in some changes, but even they would rather have the original code to do with as they wish.

An application's source code is the property of the developers, and they can choose to keep it entirely to themselves (closed source) or to share it with the world so that others can make changes to it or include it in their own software (open source). That's not to say that anyone is free to do anything they want with open source code; most open source software is usually licensed to dictate how other can use it. For example, some licenses require that any software created using the source code is also released as open source, with full credit to the original developers, so improvements can go back to the community; others restrict the source's use in commercial products or the like.

One notable example of open source licensing was in 2009, when Microsoft accidentally used open source code in a closed-source tool released to the public. After realising the mistake, they had to release the entire source code of the tool according to its original licensing.

Seems simple enough, but a number of misconceptions can arise from this distinction. People may see large corporations like Microsoft or Apple as greedy because they keep most of their code to themselves and don't allow others to see, use, or improve upon it. Of course, the closed-source choice often makes sense from a business standpoint, and proponents of this model say that keeping the code a secret allows them to ultimately put more money into the product and make it better over time.

People also often see open source endeavours as being run by a few unkempt coders in their parents' basements on a budget of nothing, updating when they get a chance (if ever). While many open source projects are run by less than a handful of contributors, larger open source systems like the Mozilla Foundation and the several Linux distributions clearly show that the system can work on a large-scale as well. In these cases, greater understanding of the underlying code can lead to more customisations and further development without actually requiring more money.

Open source isn't necessarily right for every piece of software out there, but we do love open source. It can provide (and has provided) the world with some excellent software that anyone who knows what she's doing can change to suit her desires. In the end, the software isn't necessarily better or worse, but just different from a point of view that most users will never see.

There is, of course, a lot more to it than just this, but these are the basics. Hope you're a bit less confused, Openly!

Cheers, Lifehacker

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Comments

    I always cringe when I hear these questions. You have the capacity to email someone and wait for a response yet you cant spent 5 seconds to Google and find out for yourself?

    The GNU project (a big supporter of opening source code) has an entire section of their website explaining why they they prefer it: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html . In case you want to go beyond the basics.

    I think it is great that lifehacker explains these IT terms to the non-nerd non-geek average person. I believe the only ones who object to this are those who have some undeserved feeling of superiority because they know something that someone else doesn't know.

    If I need a new program for whatever reason (dvd burning, disc image, file converters, whatever) I always say search for Open Source first in my Google searches.

    One thing the article doesn't touch on (or I missed) is that commonly when people are talking about "open source" they're referring to an alternative to another program, and typically an alternative that is free. eg: An open source alternative to Microsoft Office is OpenOffice. So for the non-savvy, someone saying "I use an opensource alternative" means they're not forking out the big bucks.

    If you're interested in saving money by avoiding the big names the site http://alternativeto.net/ is a great resource. Type in what you are looking to replace eg: Office and it'll give you alternatives, some that are paid, but as free and open source ones.

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