Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Seven Truths of Open Source Software

Open Source Software is often described as 'free' software; as in 'free' speech rather than 'free' beer. I find this a distracting explanation as the words 'free beer' summon images of flipping burgers on a sizzling barbecue whilst taking large slugs of ice cold lager. See, I bet the last thing you feel like doing now is reading about boring old Open Source Software. But we must continue and quench your also parched brain with some delicious knowledge.
Open Source Software is two things: an idea and a software licence.

The Idea

Some attribute the OS movement to the birth of the Internet and the freedom of information utopia it promised. But the real pioneers of the movement include the beardy and brainy lefties behind the GNU Project formed by Richard Stallman and the adopters of the project's philosophies like the the guys behind Netscape Navigator and Linux. Once the idea had traction it was the catalyst behind the concept of growing a product in ingenious and organic ways by tapping into a wealth of geeks with time and ideas on their hands. Two main institutions have evolved from this and they are the key guardians behind Open Source communities, standards and processes. These are the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and The Free Software Foundation.

The Licence

The 'Copyleft' as opposed to 'Copyyight' licence is the kernel of Open Source Licencing. Where Copyright forbids copying at all, Copyleft allows it as long as the modification and distribution of the software follows certain rules.  As with rules there lots of different types: some which sit well with the idea, others which make neccesary compromises and a few which are abominations and deserve a V for Vendetta style dismantling. These are in in the same order: GPL v2, Mozilla Public Licence and the Common Public Attribution License.

But what does Open Source software mean in real terms for companies wishing get out the proverbial bong and take a few hits of the free love goodness.

To help you through your journey, here are tech rash's Seven Universal Truths about Open Source Software.

1. Open Source costs money

Although you don't pay for Open Source licences, rather abide by their rules - the costs around adopting an Open Source product are often forgotten about until too late when the reality of actual complexity and  required manpower hits home. OS products are technically very complex and require expertise in that particular technology. Hiring or training experts costs money. OS products don't do exactly what you want. (As is with vendor products which have been carefully tailored to a niche). Modifying an OS product to do what you want takes time and, yes, costs money. And when it comes to support and maintenance, you are more in the wilderness than with a Vendor product. Depending on the product, there are a varying number of OS support specialists. All of which like to make money.

2. Open Source is miss represented

The phrase Open Open source is often given bad press. No future proofing, rubbish scalability, slap dash performance and impossible usability are just some of the varicose veins that tabloid technologists zoom in on with their gigantic telephoto lenses. The truth is that these issues affect all products and they have to be guaged on a case by case basis. Yes, some OS products suffer these imperfections but the same applies to vendor products. If you compare Windows Vista to Ubuntu operating system, the latter is a sublime being and the former is Quasimodo without his earnest charm

3. Open Source is miss understood

As is with all buzzwords Open Source is often used in the wrong context. The main perpetrators of this evil are, in this instance, both tech and non-tech humaniods. Non-tech humanoids see Open Source as something that is free, as in free beer. SissssZzzzzllleeeee. Crack. Glug. (Sorry). This free stuff means bigger profit margins and a silver bullet to delivering a project more cheaply. Tech folk don't really get the licensing and support implications behind OS software. They just see it as neat code that can pilfer from or hack into to achieve some bizzare functional requirements. Both perspectives have some truths but don't make up a cohesive whole. The Open Source eco-system is too big and diverse to neatly wrap in into a sound bite.

4. Open Source can be badly adopted

Open Source communities and projects can differ wildly in how they adopt the idea and the licence. A common example of this is when vendors turn their product open source whilst maintaining a commercially licensed version. This ends up being two products which the vendor struggles to maintain and consumers don't really know what they are getting from either option.

5. Open Source is for geeks

Open Source, by its very nature, is for geeks. Source means code, code means geeks. This is why OS products often work well, are feature and function rich but lack polish and glossy user experience. Some examples include Moodle and Typo3. Both very powerful tools but with the user friendliness of metal spike.

6. Open Source is badly marketed

Well marketed products require big marketing budgets which are generally latched onto monolithic corporations. The doesn't really wash with community products. There are exceptions to the rule; for example Open Source CMSs  such as Drupal are behind some big projects and their profile is improving with word of mouth. 

7. Open Source gives products a competitive edge

Allowing a product to be investigated openly and grown by clever people out there will always lead to a better product. This happens anyway with developers disassembling non-open source code and using that knowledge to build awesome extensions. OS takes advantage of this and openly reaps the rewards. Commercial Licensed Products pretend this isn't happening and try to compete by copying their ideas and rolling it into their product. 

There are probably many more truths about Open Source software, and perhaps some here which you may not agree with. But like Open Source software I can put stuff out there and allow it to be investigated and adapted. If you do though, be sure to buy me a beer.

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