What is Open Source Software?
By Brad Stitgen
There are essentially two types of software, propriety and open source. Propriety software, sometimes called closed source, refers to software that is licensed to an end user. Common examples are software you would purchase at the store or from a software vendor for your business. Think Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop, or the accounting software package you purchased to run your business.
Open source software, on the other hand, is not purchased. To the contrary, it’s given away freely. More importantly, it’s perfectly legal and in fact… encouraged! A key tenant of open source software, as suggested by the name, is that the source code is made available for anyone who wishes to review or modify the software. Finally, software that is derived from open source software remains open source. What this means is that software derived from open source software cannot be sold as proprietary software and must adhere to the open source license it was originally created under.
What are some examples of open source software?
- WordPress, Drupal, Joomla! – Popular Open Source blogging/CMS platforms.
- Linux – The operating system needed to run WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla!
- Apache – The web-server platform that serves up the majority of websites.
- MySQL – The database used by the majority of Open Source CMS’s.
- PHP – The web software language used by WordPress and other Open Source CMS’s.
How can it be any good if it’s free?
Good question! The examples listed above all have a huge following as well well as talented software engineers from around the world donating their time to enhancing the software. Both individuals, as well as corporations, are involved in the effort. With such a large pool of talent focused on updates, software security, and overall software quality the end result is software that is every bit as good, if not better than commercial offerings.
How can software companies possibly make money by giving away their software?
While giving away free software may seem to be heresy compared to the traditional software companies Open Source still do generate profits. Some typical ways of generating revenue include selling support and offering fee-based services. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the software development is being donated and that the cost of marketing is drastically reduced when the “product” is given away for free.
The power of open source software resides in the community that uses it. While WordPress, PHP, MySQL and the like may not be household names… they are very well known in the web design and development community. There are numerous conventions around the world where designers and developers meet to learn new techniques as well as meet with other passionate users. WordCamp Chicago, a local convention for WordPress users drew over 300 mostly local WordPressers last year. This year’s WordCamp US, held earlier this month in Nashville Tennesse drew a crowd of around 2,000 WordPress fanatics from around the world!
While it may be said that the reason for the popularity of open source software is price, I don’t believe it’s the sole reason. The typical web designer/developers toolkit does not entirely consist of free software. While free alternatives exist… the popularity of Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Apple computers indicates that it’s quality of the software that ultimately determines it’s popularity.
The choice of whether to use open source software really comes down to the total cost of ownership. If a proprietary software product is cheaper to use in the long run due to ease of use, ease of implementation, or a strong following it may just be a better deal. On the other hand, in the web design and development arena, open source has surely proven to be a great way to build websites while avoiding expensive software licensing fees.