What is free software? Here’s what you need to know
- Open source software is non-proprietary software that can allow collaboration and modification between developers.
- While developers are generally encouraged to view, modify, and improve open source software, licenses are always attached to applications with varying requirements.
- Popular open source software applications include Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice, and VLC Media Player.
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While many app makers keep the secrets of their technology under lock and key, open source software (OSS) takes the exact opposite approach, encouraging collaboration, transparency, and community development.
What is open source software?
Open source software is non-proprietary software that allows anyone to modify, enhance, or simply view the source code behind it. It can allow programmers to work or collaborate on projects created by different teams, companies and organizations.
Authors of open source software do not regard their creations as proprietary and instead release their software under licenses that grant users the desire and know-how to view, copy, learn, modify, and share their code.
How open source software works
OSS is shared in a public repository, granting access to anyone wishing to work on the source code. However, open source software tends to come with a distribution license, which establishes how users can interact, modify, and share the OSS.
After making changes to the source code, the OSS should indicate those changes and the methods used to make them. Additionally, depending on the license, the resulting OSS may or may not be required to be free. With this, most open source software is free, but some require an upfront fee or subscription fee.
Examples of free software
There are many examples of open source software available online, with many popular applications for user improvement and modification. While not all modifications and improvements made by programmers are made available to the general public, the ability to work with these source codes can be educational and fun for some.
Types of open source software licenses
While open source software allows virtually any programmer to use and modify it, it comes with a distribution license. Some may require anyone who modifies a program to post the new code without compensation.
The most popular licenses include:
- MIT license
- GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0
- GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0
- Apache License 2.0
- BSD 2.0 license (3 clauses, new or revised)
Benefits of free software
There are many advantages to using open source software over its proprietary counterparts, especially for businesses and organizations new to the industry.
- Open source software tends to be more flexible because it gives programmers multiple ways to solve problems and encourage creative solutions.
- Improvements and bug fixes to OSS occur much faster. Because open source software enables collaboration, issues and improvements are implemented at a faster rate.
- It’s profitable. In general, proprietary software requires internal employees to work on its source code to maintain the confidentiality of information. The open source software allows those who are not affiliated with the project to access without its authors having to pay for further development.
- You can attract better talent. If a small business releases open source software, the ability of all programmers to view and modify it could allow the organization to recruit particularly talented employees.
Disadvantages of free software
- Open source software can be more difficult to use because it may have less user-friendly interfaces or features that are not familiar to all programmers.
- Compatibility issues can arise if the hardware used to create open source software is not available to all the programmers who work on it. It could also increase the costs of the project.
- Open source software does not benefit from the same guarantees and indemnities as proprietary applications. This could become a problem because open source software may not provide any real protection against breaches.