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What is Open Source Software? How Does It Work?

Posted in Software Development
Open Source Software

There was a time when nearly every application was an open source application. Even today, 70% to 90% of all software applications are open source. 

Open source technology is a fundamental backbone of innovation. Whether you're a programmer, user, or business analyst, it's important to understand open source and its larger ramifications.

Any piece of software is generally classified as either commercial andproprietary or open source (with some nuance).

  • Commercial solutions usually require a licensing fee or subscription payment. The developer maintains rights to the software and controls who can modify the software. Nobody can produce copies or modify the software without the original developer’s permission.
  • Open source solutions are usually completely free. The developer releases the application code to the general public, who can modify and improve it. However, there are some limitations—for instance, the developer may ask that no one sell a version of their open source solution.

Open source software is frequently considered better than commercial and proprietary software. But that isn’t always true. 

Let's dive deeper into open source code and its advantages and disadvantages.

What is Open Source Software?

What does open source mean? An open source technology is a technology distributed under an "open source" license — which grants other users the ability to modify and distribute the application's source code. Note that this isn't the unlimited ability to modify and distribute source code; some open source licenses still require developers to adhere to specific requirements, such as never charging for the software.

On a technological level, open source technology provides for greater levels of innovation, efficiency, and productivity — no one has to reinvent the wheel. 

Philosophically, open source software has always been about freedom of information and freedom of creativity — the ability to share ideas and technology without the need for profit.

Is Open Source Software Always Free?

Does open source need to be free? Many conflate the open source meaning with "free software." Open source software doesn't necessarily mean that the software is free; technically, it could still be sold by the original developer. It simply doesn't happen because the source code is readily available — selling it is not generally advantageous.

There are situations in which open source software could be sold, such as packaged with a support program, or on a USB drive.

Open Source Software for Programmers

Open source code clearly benefits programmers. When an application's source code is publicly available, it becomes easier to find and fix bugs. Programmers can customize applications to their own needs or the needs of their employer, without reinventing the wheel. 

Many programmers begin to learn through open source software. Quite a few development kits, frameworks, and libraries are entirely open source—and provide a wealth of materials for both new and experienced programmers.

Open Source Software for Companies

There are many advantages for companies that use or develop open source software. From a financial perspective, it's often cheaper to use open source solutions. Proprietary software frequently requires licensing fees, whereas most open source software is free. Developing open source software offers the opportunities to support that software, for a fee.

Because the source code is available, companies can customize an open source application to better suit their needs. Many large enterprises run on open source technology, with a caveat; open source technology tends to have little built-in support compared to proprietary or commercial solutions.

Open Source Software for Users

Many consider open source software to be of higher quality than proprietary solutions, as there are simply more people working on it. But that's not always true. Open source software can also be "designed by committee"—becoming unstable and poorly supported. For users, though, the benefits to open source software are fairly direct: open source software tends to be free.

The Benefits and Disadvantages of Open Source Software

On the whole, open source software is a great solution for many organizations and individuals. In most cases, the pros outweigh the cons—especially when it comes to cost, quality, and support.

Advantages:

  • Lower cost. Open source solutions are free, so you can run an entire business on open source solutions if you want to avoid licensing costs
  • Greater levels of innovation. Operating as a committee/community opens up more possibilities for innovation and creativity.
  • Increased efficiency and productivity. Rather than relying on a small development team, development is open to a global community of programmers.
  • Freedom of information. There is an ethos regarding open source solutions about freedom of information.

Disadvantages:

  • Designed by committee. Proprietary solutions may have more “direction,” as there is someone specific in charge.
  • A lack of support. Most free and open source solutions don’t have any built-in support and instead rely on the community.
  • Technical expertise. While this isn’t always true, quite a few open source solutions are designed by engineers for engineers. Many of them require some knowledge or technical expertise to operate.

How Does Open Source Software Work?

Open source software is typically developed in a collaborative manner, with programmers from all over the world working together to improve the code. When a new feature or fix is made, it's typically added to the "master" or "main" branch of code—the most up-to-date version of the software. From there, users can download and install the software on their computers. Because this process is democratized, users can also become developers.

Open source software is usually released under a license that allows anyone to use, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit. The most common license used for open source software is the GNU General Public License (GPL), but there are many others.

Open Source Software vs. Closed Source Software

The main difference between open source and closed source software is who has access to the code. With open source software, the code is freely available for anyone to view, use, or modify. Closed source software, on the other hand, is only available to the original developer—or those with permission from the developer.

Open Source

Closed Source

Developed By

Committee

Company

Cost (Usually)

Free

Paid

Security

Dependent on Bug Reports

Dependent on Internal Quality Insurance

Quality

Dependent on Community

Dependent on Developers

Support

Not Built-In

Built-In

Open source software is typically more affordable, customizable, and supported by a community of users and developers. Closed source software is usually more user-friendly and commercially available. Ultimately, the best solution depends on the needs of the user or organization.

Note also that there are very few clear-cut answers when it comes to open source vs. closed source. Open source software can be of higher quality than closed source software. But it can also be kludgy and inefficient. It all depends on who developed it.

Popular open source technologies include Apache Server, Linux, PHP, and WordPress. Open source applications can be anything, from an operating system to a browser. Most programming and development tools are open source. Nearly every programming language is, by necessity, open-source.

An example of an open source application would be Inkscape — a vector editing image software suite. 

Official Inkscape Screenshot

Comparatively, Adobe Illustrator is a proprietary, commercial vector editing image software suite.

Official Adobe Screenshot

Other closed source applications include Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop, and Apple's macOS. This touches upon another aspect of open source software — if there is a proprietary/commercial software solution, there is frequently a directly analogous solution in the open source community.

Open Source: Software Licenses

Not every open source program has the same license. In fact, many different licenses cover open source software. The GNU General Public License (GPL) is the most common, but there are also licenses like the MIT License, the Apache License, and the GNU Lesser GPL.

The main difference between these licenses is how they handle derivative works. With a GPL-licensed program, any derivative works must also be released under the GPL. With the MIT License, derivative works can be released under any license — including closed source licenses.

As a user, you generally don’t need to understand these licenses. However, programmers should check the license each time.

Open Source: Security

One of the main advantages of open source software is that it's typically more secure than closed source software. This is because the code is available for anyone to review. If there are security vulnerabilities, you can find and fix them quickly. 

With closed source software, only the company that owns the software has access to the code. This means that security vulnerabilities can go undetected for a long time. Another complexity is that companies may charge for new versions of their software and the old versions may remain vulnerable.

Open Source: Quality

Open source software is usually of higher quality because many people review it. When someone finds a bug, they can submit a fix to the project maintainer. If the maintainer likes the fix, they'll apply it to the codebase. 

That being said, the quality of open source software is determined by the size and expertise of its community. If it has a small community, it may not be able to maintain a high-quality codebase.

Open Source: Support

Open source support is variable. Big open source projects have a wealth of community support. However, there’s no 24/7 line to call if you run into problems.

Closed source software tends to have better support through live technicians who can help you with help desk tickets. But, of course, this also comes at a cost.

Open Source: Beyond Software

Open source isn't just for software. It's also used for hardware, books, and just about everything else. The most popular type of open source solution besides applications is hardware.

Open source hardware is hardware with available design files for anyone to review and modify. Like open source software, open source hardware is usually developed by a community of developers. The best-known open source hardware project is the Arduino, a small computer that can control electronics projects.

Open source books are books whose authors have made the source files available for anyone to review and modify. These books are typically released under an open source license, like the Creative Commons Attribution license. They can be modified by other authors. Open sourcing can technically apply to just about anything, including images and songs.

Conclusion

The internet was built on a foundation of open source applications — so, the open source philosophy remains extremely important to communities like the Linux community. As a programmer, developer, or even just an end-user, understanding how open source technology works and its importance is essential to understanding software as a whole.

How can you learn more about open source software? Take a look at the source code of the applications you're using, when available — you can learn a lot about software development strategies and techniques. You might also explore open source web development IDE and other web tools. 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What Does Open Source Software Mean?

Open source software is computer software with source code made available through a license. The copyright holder provides the rights to study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose.

2. Is Google Open Source?

While some of Google's products are open source, the company as a whole is not open source. Google reserves the right to keep some of its solutions commercial and proprietary while it releases others through an open source license.

3. Who Owns Open Source?

No single person or organization owns open source. It's a collaborative model of software development to which anyone can contribute. However, open source solutions are frequently maintained by a specific community or foundation.

4. How Do You Use Open Source?

You can use open source software in many ways. For example, you can find and install open source applications on your computer or develop applications with open source code. Moreover, you can contribute to existing open source projects, or start your own project and release it under an open source license.

5. Is OSS Bug-Free?

Not necessarily. Like any software, open source software can have bugs. The good news is since the code is available for anyone to review, programmers typically find and fix these bugs quickly. However, this depends on how active and thorough the community is.

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Jenna Inouye

Jenna Inouye

Jenna Inouye has been a full stack developer for two decades, specializing in web application design and development. For the last eight years, she has worked as a news and feature writer focusing on technology and finance, with bylines in Udemy, SVG, and The Gamer. View all posts by the Author

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