Open source 101

The advantages of open source tools

Kayla Matthews
open source
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What is open source? How does open source benefit users? And how do we support open source initiatives? In this article, Kayla Matthews introduces the basics of open source as well as the importance and value of open source tools.

Open source software, applications, and projects are becoming more commonplace, at least more than they ever have been. That’s because major organizations and brands have now embraced the development philosophy.

Some of the more renowned examples of open source projects include WordPress, Android, FileZilla, Audacity, GIMP, VLC Media Player, Notepad++, Blender, and, of course, Ubuntu/Linux.

But just what is open source, and what’s the difference between it and closed source projects? What is the inherent value of open source tools and software, and are there benefits of it? What should you do if you’re an avid supporter of open source?

We’re going to take a look at all of these concepts and explore them in more detail.

What is open source?

As a member of the development and programming community, you likely know what open source software is already, so we’ll keep it brief.

The term “open” or “open source” is used to describe an application, project, or tool that anyone can modify and share. This is possible because the source code or base foundation of the software is publicly accessible. You’ll notice Mocha, for instance, has a total of over 12,300 users, with nearly 12,000 of them contributing to its development.

Imagine a community built property that anyone can contribute to, by coming in, hammering some nails, designing some support structures and framing, or even tailoring the look of the property. That is the simple concept behind open source. Furthermore, funding for the project can come from a variety of sources, some more lucrative than others.

SEE MORE: How to convert Java apps to JavaScript with CheerpJ

Over the years, the community has evolved and is now considered by many to be more of an “open source way” or strategy if you will. This is a shorthand way of saying that modern open source projects support principles and methods of collaboration for the open exchange of information, development modules and components, rapid prototyping and a general community-oriented development process.

Any developer regardless of skill or knowledge can participate in an open source project, and often newer or inexperienced developers use them to earn the necessary experience they need to find professional work. Of course, that’s not always the case, even some of the most prominent and well-known developers in the industry participate in open source projects and communities.

What’s the difference between open source and closed source software?

Closed source software is also referred to as “proprietary” by many. Essentially, it is a project or application that can only be modified, altered, and shared via the team or organization that authored it. The primary author retains exclusive control and is usually the only party to make changes to the software or tool.

With closed software, only the original author can legally copy, inspect, alter and distribute the software. Often, to use this type of software, the end users must agree to specific terms set forth by the owner, expressly agreeing they will not use the software in a way other than what was intended, nor will they modify said software.

Some well-known examples include the Apple iOS mobile operating system, Microsoft Office suite, Adobe Photoshop and many more.

SEE MORE: What makes an open source project succeed?

On the other hand, open source or open software can be altered, modified and shared by just about anyone. You can usually find a competing open source application or piece of software that is equal to or more capable than professional, closed-source software. For example, rather than Microsoft Office, you can rely on LibreOffice which is entirely open. GIMP, as opposed to Photoshop, is another great example of an open source alternative.

For open source software, end users may also be asked to agree to license terms though they are much less restrictive. In most cases, open source licenses are used to ensure the project remains truly open and that everyone in the community adheres to a level of collaborative standards. For example, there are open source licenses that require anyone who alters an open source project or program to release their software’s source code without charging a license fee.

What is the value of open source software?

Most open source software and projects are available for free, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is no money in the industry. In fact, there is a commercial side of open source development that brings added value.

This naturally begs the question — what is the value of open source software? It might also cause you to wonder what an acceptable price to pay for open source software or projects is. Some open source software is sold just like closed source, while other tools are given away free of charge. Is it acceptable to install and use these tools without offering a donation?

Simply put, the inherent value of open source software is incredibly hard to discern across a variety of projects — as in each one is different. It mostly depends on how the software is handled or distributed, how large the development team is and what they hope to achieve or provide.

For example, some open source projects may be remarkably small and only offer a small set of features. Others — like LibreOffice — may be looking to cover a broad range of apps and services to replace an existing toolset. You could argue that the latter is more valuable and worth more — thus worth paying more — but, again, that’s not always true.

SEE MORE: GitHub survey: Incomplete documentation is the biggest problem encountered in open source

The base Android OS, for instance, is entirely free and open source. That’s exactly why you see so many manufacturers and product companies with different software versions running on their smartphones. Each company may take the Android OS, add or modify it and release it along with their product. While the OS is free, each device launched by a company running the software may price it differently.

You may be surprised to learn that 78% of companies run on open source principles and software. As for the advantages and benefits they reap, there are several that go along with open source projects.

  • Quality and value for end users is usually higher because the developers are usually end users that know what they want from a particular application or tool
  • Development cost is usually much cheaper as the software is developed externally by a like-minded community
  • Open source software tends to be incredibly flexible, with multiple iterations, variants and versions of a single project or software
  • Security can be tighter and more reliable because bugs, problems, and vulnerabilities can be discovered and fixed by anyone, quickly
  • Larger and close-knit community of developers consistently update references, resources and documentation

SEE MORE: Think open source software is free? Think again…

How do I support open source communities?

As a developer or programmer, you are in the perfect position to help and support open source communities that you love and respect. If you use a particular piece of software or tool, it’s always a good idea to contribute by using your skills, knowledge, and experience. You can help by implementing new features and functions you’d like to see or by fixing bugs and vulnerabilities you encounter during use.


Open Source

To read more about open source, download the latest issue of JAX Magazine:

All eyes on Open Source

Open source skills are a boost for career prospects — if you don’t believe it, it’s time to bring out the big guns.

We invited the Eclipse Foundation, The Apache Software Foundation, Cloud Foundry, Red Hat, Hyperledger and more to show you why open source is important. You’ll surely learn a lot from their experiences!

But don’t take my word for it! Open the magazine and allow their passion to “infect” you.


Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a technology writer, contributing to publications like VentureBeat, TechnoBuffalo, Fast Company and The Week. To read more posts by Kayla, check out her personal tech blog.

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