Open Source: A Closer Look June 17th, 2009

opensource1Chances are that the term open source has mysteriously cropped up at least once in your online explorations. The term is commonly equated with the notion that the software is freely available or freely distributed. In reality, this is but a single element of what comprises open source. Dictionary.com defines open source as a term coined in March of 1998 to describe software that can be freely modified, used, and redistributed. The purpose of the term was to avoid the stigma accompanying the term “free software,” as it cast a dark shadow. Somewhat affectionately, geeks everywhere adopted the term FUD to describe this amorphous shadow, the letters being an acronym for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.

Contrary to popular geek assertions, it’s not always the proprietary (paid) software companies that spread these rumors or author this perception. In fact, FUD is the direct result of the human mind reasoning that one indeed “gets what they pay for” as the old adage goes. How could something free possibly be better than something paid? How could people that work for free output better work than those that depend on the job for money? How can freely available software ever possibly be more secure than proprietary alternatives? There were many questions, and not-so-obvious answers.

One of the great ironies about open source software is that it is arguably more secure than paid software. The single greatest merit of open source is that it forces peer review. This means that each programmer/developer is, in effect, a stakeholder in the software. The code that they contribute to the project is quickly used, viewed, and analyzed by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of peers. The pressure is on to make your solution/contribution worthwhile for both the good of the project, but more importantly (and ultimately) for the good of one’s self. No geek wants to be the subject of ridicule and scorn from friends and colleagues; that is just one of those unwritten facts of life. In all seriousness, the contributed code could mean a job, a reputation, or a claim to fame.

Another often cited reason for not using open source is that the software produced will not be maintained. Here again, there is great irony. Proprietary software has one goal, and that is profit. The proprietary solution will exist as long as the profit motive is held true. Since businesses ultimately exist for this single reason; profits, research, or exploration in other areas may leave software stranded on an island with closed source denying any chance to migrate critical data. In the case of open source, those involved on the project have a clear and vested interest in the project. If something new comes along, they need to migrate just as much as the enduser. For this reason, open source projects tend to continue much longer, even if they branch off into other projects.

Last but not least, is cost. This is the obvious open source advantage, and it needs no more words to convey the ultimate worth of this detail. However, I’ll part with these few final thoughts. Why pay for less security? Why not invest a little time to save a lot of money? Open source is here to stay, as it came forth over a decade now. It is built upon an internet with the philosophy of open standards, a very close sister to open source. When a door is open, it provides the greatest opportunity for many to enter!

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