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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 1
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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 1

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 1

When we think about intellectual property, we usually frame it in terms of exclusive use. This company sues that company for copying a proprietary concept. One musician sues another because there is uncanny similarity to a copyrighted composition. There’s more to it, of course, because intellectual property is about the rights of the creator to decide who uses an idea, and how it may be used. This means that there is an ideal which works in the directly opposite highly protected, secret methods. In the world of computer software, this non-secretive approach is called open source.

In simplified terms, open source software is software whose creator grants its use under these conditions:

  • The software may be redistributed.
  • The software’s source code (that is, the language that makes the program do what it does) is freely available.
  • Anyone is free to modify the code and redistribute it.

In practice, it looks like this: I give (or sell) my software and its source code to you. You are free to modify it and then give (or sell) it to someone else on your own terms, which may or may not be the same terms under which I gave or sold it to you.

There are many iterations and extensions of this basic concept, but they all hold to the three basic ideas of open code, modifications, and redistribution. Many well-known programs are open-source, such as Wikimedia, the software on which Wikipedia is run; Android, the operating system powering more than a billion mobile devices worldwide; Firefox, the world’s second-most popular web browser; and Moodle, an education management platform run by many universities.

Most open source software is available for no charge, but contrary to popular belief, open source does not mean free of charge, and many companies make money using and redistributing open source software. One well-known example of this is the Red Hat company’s distribution of Linux, an open source operating system. Red Hat sells its version of Linux for commercial use, adding trademarked modifications. Although it restricts redistribution of its trademarked modified versions, it allows free redistribution of the software with its trademarks stripped out, and it makes its source code available for modification and redistribution. Red Hat understands that its business depends on the spirit of the open source community, and supporting it in this way indirectly contributes to its long-term viability.

Other businesses exist in support of open source software. For example, the open source Wordpress blogging program is free, but some companies sell supported, specialized modifications to the blogs’ appearance (“themes”) and functions (“plug-ins”). Others offer support and customized hosting for Wordpress blogs.

Still, for most open source software, the spirit of receiving freely and then giving freely is critical to developing the best software. When others are free to modify it, they are usually making improvements. When they offer those improvements back to the community under open source terms, others may then make further improvements. Compare this with highly protected proprietary software, whose code is secret, such as your favorite spreadsheet software. If customers want improvements, they might write to the company and request them, and maybe a few versions down the line will feature those changes. Or maybe they won’t. With open source software, a user might ask the community for those improvements, and if others are in agreement, they might make those changes right away, or perhaps suggest ways the user might modify the code to make it happen for him- or herself.

Over time, open source software becomes better according to its users’ and developers’ wishes. With closed source software, improvements come at the will of its sellers, by the sellers’ schedule and with whatever the sellers’ long-term agenda might be. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s in a commercial entity’s best interest, whether its software is open or closed, to provide the best product it can. It’s good to be aware, however, that there are other options, many of them free of charge, built on a different concept.

In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at practical advantages and disadvantages to open source software, from a user’s perspective.


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Technology Trends: Open Source Software, Part 1 - Executive Leadership Articles

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