Tuesday, January 22, 2008

free and open source software

Everyone likes free things, right? What would you say if I told you that you could get a free office suite for your computer? What if I told you that you could legally get a free office suite for your computer?

That's exactly the sort of thing you can get when you explore the world of Free and Open Source Software, or FOSS.

First, a few clarifications:

The word Software refers to any of the programs you run on your computer. Microsoft Word is software. Internet Explorer is software. When you run iTunes on your computer, you're using a specific piece of software. For that matter, your operating system, like Windows XP or Vista, is software. Without software, your PC is just an expensive doorstop.

Free in as used in "Free and Open Source Software", does not refer to the price, although I hasten to say that Free and Open Source Software is almost always available free of charge. Instead, and more importantly, free refers to certain freedoms you have in relation to the software. With this kind of software, you are free to:
  • use the software for any purpose
  • change the software for any use (this means you have access to the source code)
  • give copies of the software to anyone you want
For most of us, the key here is that you can get a copy of the software (usually by downloading it), and then install that software on as many computers as you need, and even pass it on to friends and neighbors, all firmly within the law and within the intent of the software authors.

By the way, source code refers to the "instructions, written in a form readable and understandable by programmers, that direct how an application should run." (definition from the NOSI Primer. See below.) Basically, a program is a very detailed set of instructions to the computer of what to do and when to do them. Some person (the programmer) has to write out all these instructions: the source code. These instructions are then compressed and translated into a language that the computer can act on directly: the program.

When you buy Word or download iTunes, you get the compressed and translated program, but not the source code. It's virtually impossible to make any change to the program without the source code. With Free and Open Source Software, you can also get the source code for the program. If you know how to program, you can make changes to the software: fix a bug, add a feature, adapt it to a new situation.

The difference between just having the program and having the source code is much like the difference between renting and buying a house. If you rent, you can move the furniture around, but you can't remove a wall or add on a room.

I've been a user of FOSS for quite a while--the Firefox web browser for instance. But Dave Warnock tipped me off to the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative or NOSI, and their Primer. It has a good explanation of FOSS, help evaluating where and how FOSS might help you, and lists of highly rated FOSS programs you can get for no cost.

Oh! That free office suite I mentioned? It's called OpenOffice.org.

I'll be sharing some of my experiences with FOSS in upcoming posts. Until then, have any of you used Free and Open Source Software? Do you still use it? Why or why not? Share your experiences.

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