You're almost certainly using some of it right now! Most of the visitors to the site browse here using Firefox, an open source project of the Mozilla Foundation; the second runner up is Google Chrome, which is just the Google-branded version of the Chromium browser open source project.
GNU/Linux (operating systems)
Wordpress (blogging tool)
Thunderbird (email client)
Blender (3D graphics)
VLC (media player)
FileZilla (FTP client)
Adium (chat client)
Pidgin (chat client)
Audacity (digital audio editor)
FrostWire (P2P filesharing)
OpenOffice/LibreOffice (office productivity suite)
MediaWiki (wiki software that runs Wikipedia)
phpBB (internet bulletin board)
GIMP (graphics editor)
Notepad++ (text editor)
HandBrake (media transcoder)
Calibre (ebook manager)
LaTeX (document preparation system)
Sage Math (computer algebra system)
...and the list goes on.
Even if you don't think you have any installed, most of the computers that host webpages are running the Apache HTTP Server, an open source project. Proprietary software also reuses chunks of open-source software to accomplish common software tasks without having to write everything from scratch. And that's one of the greatest things about the open software movement: it creates a huge bank of code that anyone is free to draw from, study, and incorporate into their own projects—once something is 'done right', the product is available to everyone, for free, forever. This is in contrast to many proprietary software projects, where corporate policy is to patent every feature and algorithm to keep anyone else from using it for 17 years.
What is Open Source Software?
The 'source' in 'open source' refers to the source code, which is the text that a programmer writes. The source code is then often 'compiled' into the program that you run. If you only have the compiled program, you can't easily see how it works or make changes to it—you need the source code to do that. In open source projects, the source code is publicly available.
When talking about open source software, you may also see the terms "Free and Open Source Software" (FOSS) and "Free, Libre, Open Source Software" (FLOSS).
According to the Free Software Foundation:
“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, lists four freedoms that are preconditions for free, open source software:
0) The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purposeFree software communicates these freedoms to users with a free software license. In contrast, proprietary software licenses restrict how software may be used and prohibit modification and redistribution.
1) The freedom to study how the program works and change it as you wish
2) The freedom to redistribute copies
3) The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others
Why Do People Use Open Source Software?
As mentioned above, many people use open source software and don't even realize it!
For those seeking financial independence? Simple: it's free! Never pay for software again.
Many computer enthusiasts turn to open source solutions for greater software choice, customizability, and (this may surprise you!) ease of use. Used to hunting around on the Internet to find .exe files to install the software you want? A .exe could theoretically be anything, and this is where people run into trouble and end up installing viruses, malware, keyloggers, browser hijackers, and other garbage. In Ubuntu Linux, a popular open source operating system, you search for the software you want in the Ubuntu Software Center:
Like an App Store, one click and it's installed! Software updates for every installed program are also handled through a single interface.
This is just one example. Simply put, it's easier for an experienced user to configure a fully-open system to look and act exactly how they want it to.
Some people use it to do amazing things in resource-limited situations. Rob Litte, a teacher I met at Maker Faire, created three computer labs for students in the Oakland public schools by installing open source operating systems (Ubuntu Linux) and software on computers he rescued from county salvage. Many open source software packages are designed to use limited computing resources, so it can take old hardware that can't run the latest Microsoft and Apple operating systems and turn it into perfectly usable systems for learning and play.
Other projects that seek to improve computer access, such as the Alameda County Home Computer Placement Program and One Laptop Per Child, also use open source software on their machines. These programs would not be possible if they were required to spend hundreds of dollars per computer to install Windows and Microsoft Office.
Many governments (parts of the US, Australia, Austria, soon the UK, many others) have switched to open source software to improve cost savings and interoperability. Open source software is more likely to adhere to open interoperability standards, so documents and data created using open source software is much more likely to be accessible by anyone.
It can also be argued that it is harder for governments and organizations to hide spying and surveillance systems in open source software. By definition the source code is publicly viewable by anyone, so it would be much harder to sneak in malicious code without it being found.
Customizability, performance, cost savings, security, philosophical reasons... all kinds of people come to open source for all kinds of reasons.
Why Do People Contribute to Open Source Software?
Most open source software is developed by large teams of volunteers who collaborate over the Internet. Why would someone write software for no pay and release it for free?
Lots of reasons:
- Makers, scientists, and entrepreneurs who want to create new tools
- software engineers looking to improve their skills
- computer enthusiasts interested in working on a public resource to 'give back'
- hackers (the good kind) building a reputation
- security experts, designers, and artists practicing their craft
- problem solvers interested in challenging problems
Contributing to an open source project doesn't just have to mean writing software. Many people volunteer to write and improve software documentation, maintain websites, answer questions in forums, test new versions, create audio and visual assets for programs, and more.
Want to Learn More?
Whatever operating system you're currently running, there is open source software available to you. Check out some of the software listed above, and read more about the open source movement on the Free Software Foundation website.
If you'd like to go a little deeper, consider trying out an open source operating system. Ubuntu Linux is a good place to start! You can install Ubuntu right alongside your current operating system, or try it out on an older computer that no longer runs the newest operating systems. The online documentation is excellent, and the vast majority of hardware will work right out of the box. Microsoft is no longer supporting Windows XP, so this is the perfect opportunity to try something different and breathe some new life into an old system.
Questions? Leave them in the comments!