Open Source Today (WRT102 research paper)

In the mid 1980s a new movement came about, a movement to free computer users from the restrictive model of software development. Up until this time most software developers (especially those in corporate environments) were intent on keeping their software source code in the dark; this way no one was able to modify or "steal their software." While today this idea is still the dominant one, the tide is changing. The concept of Open Source is becoming more popular and accepted with each day. One fundamental question remains: Is Open Source Software (OSS) really a god send, will people and companies accept OSS solutions over Proprietary ones?

Sami describes Open Source as concept of developing and distributing software which is the direct opposite of the more common and familiar Proprietary Software (2). More often than not, when a user receives a (proprietary) computer program they get a compiled version (also known as the binary or an executable), it contains a series of computer instructions which are generally uninterpretable by humans. This binary is not what the the developers use to write the program; it is instead a translation from a computer-language (source code) to pure machine-instructions. A common analogy of executables is a "black box" which, when given certain input, will return an output. The source code however is a blueprint describing what is contained in this black box. Unlike proprietary software, when a user receives Open Source Software they also receive a copy of the source code. With this source code the user can theoretically modify and customize a program to their liking.

There are two goals which the Open Source movement is trying to address, both of which bring the software development closer to the user. From a practical approach, when compared to proprietary software, OSS evolves at a phenomenally fast rate. Since many people can analyze a programs inner structure for bugs and security flaws, patches and updates are released faster. It is for this reason alone that many people choose OSS solutions instead of the proprietary ones. From an ethical perspective, some Open Source developers believe that they have a responsibility to society in providing better software. Unfortunately sometimes this responsibility is hindered by legal means, it is not uncommon for a company or developer to file for a patent on algorithm. In essence this prevents or limits other developers from implementing this or similar algorithms in their programs.

Lately the concept of Open Source has turned into a political border-lining religious philosophy. There are two main churches (or cults) of Open Source Software, Open Source Initiative (OSI) and the Free (Libre) Software Foundation (FSF). While the underlying idea of these two organizations are similar -- the source code should always be provided with the binaries -- they are not homogeneous. Richard Stallman of the FSF describes the difference the best, he claims that FSF and the OSI differ in their values. Unlike the FSF, OSI approaches this issue from a practical perspective rather than an ethical one (55).

Today the user base of Open Source Software is still small fraction of all computer users, but it should not be ignored. Over the past few years the user base has been growing dramatically. If this kind of growth rate is sustained Open Source users will soon become a significantly sized group. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that while many people are jumping onto the OSS bandwagon that they are also welcoming the the aforementioned religion. Although it is virtually impossible to measure; many Open Source users are not activists or converts they simply use Open Source solutions because they are either more convenient or, perhaps more importantly, because they often gratis.

Perhaps you have heard from a friend how Open Source solutions are better and so much more secure, or maybe you have recently seen an IBM commercial bragging how they are now providing secure Linux based solutions. If OSS is so much better why isn't everyone using it? The simple truth is that apart from a few projects (ie: Firefox, OpenOffice.org) Open Source is not very user friendly and generally requires extensive knowledge of computer/software systems. As far as security goes, Open Source alternatives are not per se more secure. There are many reasons why Open Source Software programs fare better when it comes to viruses and intrusions: they are not as an attractive target because there are generally fewer of them; they are patched more quickly when security flaws are discovered (ie: ping of death exploit); and finally, as pointed out by Ferris, people running advanced Open Source systems (ie: Linux) are generally more aware of security and learn to avoid compromising their machines(40). But of course security on Open Source solutions is not all hype. Many alternatives to proprietary solutions such as Apache and Firefox have been time and time again been proved to be more secure.

The most promising area for OSS today is in the corporate environment, as companies require ever more dynamic solutions to their problems proprietary software can only go so far. Generally it is very hard to integrate several proprietary systems together into a single solution, and the fact that you are often not able to customize proprietary software which you bought to suit your task doesn't help you much. For an systems administrator it is generally more important to do exactly this. For example if you want to use one package for a mail traffic handler and a totally different system for mail box handling you could, theoretically, achieve just this. If you wanted to do this with proprietary software you'd probably be out of luck, its highly unlikely that company A which makes a mail system would like to make their mail handler compatible with the mailbox handler of company B.

As mentioned earlier there is a good number of companies that embrace Open Source Software, but there is also the other side. Recently several high profile companies (Microsoft, SCO) have gone on tremendous slandering campaigns to try to kill the the OSS movement while it is still developing stage. A question emerges: if some are able to turn a profit while producing "free" software why cant others adjust their business plan to the new wave? This is generally not a question of economics alone but also, one of politics.

Companies which provide Open Source software are usually more interested in selling solutions then programs. IBM for example sells specialty hardware with integrated OSS packages which together aim to make it easier for administrators to implement the solution into an existing system. As a company, IBM is not concerned about selling software. It knows that the software alone, without the special hardware, is not of interest to the public. Other OSS oriented companies (ie: RedHat, Novell) make their money by either selling support to a product which they "give away" or alternatively they provide a more customized solutions which would be impossible from an out-of-the-box package. From the other side, companies which are anti Open Source (ie: Microsoft) sell consumer end programs which accomplish routine and general tasks. Often times these packages do not require support and because these packages are easy to re-invent and have relatively low development cost and therefore can be cloned by OSS projects. The OSS project called OpenOffice.org (branch from Suns Star Office) serves as perfect example of this phenomenon, many users have adopted OpenOffice.org as a replacement to Microsoft Office. Not only is OpenOffice.org capable of doing virtually everything Microsoft Office can but it can be deployed on a number of operating systems and also, its free (gratis and libre). It is evident that some companies have a lot to loose if many consumers switch to Open Source solutions.

Instead of sitting back and complaining how the customers are wrong for choosing alternative software, companies should be thinking of adapting to the change in consumers needs. There is money to be made from OSS, many misunderstand the meaning of "free" when its referred to Open Source software. While free does mean gratis, when it comes to Open Source software it is used as by its other meaning: libre. Being free of charge is not a requirement for a piece of software to be considered Open Source, how ever it is required that the software come with its source code and without patents or other limitations. In other words, switching the practice of a company from Proprietary software to OSS does not mean that they have to switch their money making strategies, companies can still charge per piece of software just as Novell or Sun is doing.

Following current trends it is not hard to foresee what direction Open Source is heading in. The future for OSS in server-type applications is looking bright, companies of these fields are happy to donate developer time and research money to keep the non-profit projects in motion. In his evaluation of Open Source, Fugetta, points out how IBM and Sun are avidly developing for Apache (86). Considering that Apache has a 67% market share of web servers and is still growing (Broersma), one can safely say it is not going anywhere. Apache is not alone, BINDS, mySQL and many other Open Source server-solutions are also looking strong. The future for OSS in personal and consumer level programs is also looking quite good. Although the enthusiasms by users is not as great there is a sizable number of developers willing to work on these projects. Fortunately developers are beginning to place more emphasis on user- friendliness, with this more users are likely to deploy Open Source programs to address their software needs.

Works Cited

  • Asiri, Sami. "Open Source Software." ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society 33.1 (March 2003): 2.
  • Broersma, Matthew. " Apache zooms away from Microsoft's Web server."Zdnet 12 Jan. 2004.
  • Ferris, Paul. "The Age of Corporate Open Source Enlightenment." Queue 1.5 (July/August 2003): 34-44.
  • Fuggeta, Alfonso. "Open source software -- An evaluation." Journal of Systems and Software 66.1 (Apil 15 2003): 77-90.
  • Stallman, Richard. "Why 'Free Software' is better than 'Open Source.'"Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Ed: Joshua Gay. Boston:Free Software Foundation 2002
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