Neil Cumins explains what open source is and explores where it came from…
If you’ve ever had to squint at a 25-digit alphanumeric product key printed in italics against a holographic background, you will appreciate how seriously some companies view the use of their computer software. From single-use licences to programs that will only run a certain number of times, many firms go to great lengths to prevent their proprietary software from being shared, copied or modified.
By contrast, some firms actively encourage free downloading and global sharing of their software. Others go even further by making the source code of particular programs available for anyone to look at, alter or improve as they see fit. This is known as open source – allowing the general public to modify or enhance a publicly-accessible design before using it for any commercial or personal purposes.
In terms of computing, the origins of open source can be traced back to a time when private individuals laboriously typed programs into their home computers using code languages like BASIC and Pascal. Written in an approximation of English, people could customise these pages of printed instructions as they saw fit. As software packages became more complex, the principles of spontaneous revision remained, despite ever-greater levels of technical knowhow being required.
As with so many aspects of modern life, it was the arrival of the Internet that really brought open source to the fore. The ability to make live edits to a piece of software from anywhere in the world has enabled open source architecture to flourish, with millions of people volunteering their time and expertise to help improve packages. A related spin-off involves plugins, where software makers allow people to develop free add-ons and extensions that augment and enhance a proprietary package. It’s no longer necessary to accept the limitations or glitches in a preordained and sealed software program.
Historically, open source software often developed in response to a specific issue or challenge. However, the cult-like nature of some open source software reflects the communities that can develop around packages like Wikimedia. At the time of writing, this publicly-accessible database has over 21.8 million video, audio and image files available for copyright-free public use. Anyone can contribute new files, or re-use the ones already available.
Today, open source software is overseen by the Open Source Initiative. This California-based organisation acts as an umbrella group for high-profile open source providers including Linux, Mozilla and Drupal, while official sponsors include computing giants like IBM, Adobe and HP. Open source software has advocates and champions across the computing sector, and these packages often feature comparable quality to rival paid-for programs. Although open source software must be freely redistributed, revenue-raising opportunities include advertising or charging users for technical support.
With the principles of open source now evident in everything from cola recipes to collaborative journalism, it’s becoming increasingly normal to share things freely in an attempt to make them better. Where the open source way goes from its current high water mark is hard to predict, although the standards of professionalism and flexibility found in open source software packages are likely to continue rising with every passing year.