What is OpenSource Software?

OpenSource software is often confused with  Shareware and Freeware, which it isn’t. Shareware and freeware are compiled programs and the source code is not available to the user.

OpenSource is more of a concept, than anything else. It is, granted, free, but where it differentiates from Shareware and Freeware is that it comes with the source code (this is the original code in text format that anyone can see and make changes).

There are many who think that OpenSource is the future for all software and I will attempt to give an example, using smaller numbers, which hopefully illustrates the concept.

A software house called “Widget Software” sells their program for £300. They have 10,000 customers which they have to support. So they employ a large support team for this task. In addition, they have to continue to upgrade the software as requests for extra features from their clients pour in.

Then, one day, the company decides to embrace the “OpenSource” model. They release the source code on the Internet and, at the same time, set up a Forum for users to help each other. The companies user-base grows to 100,000.

They now have a fixed fee support contract which is charged out at £50 a quarter. Out of all the extra users, many are from corporates and smaller companies who are happy to pay for the support contract once they download the program and can see it will do what they want. Companies hate free as they want to be able to hold someone to task if they are not able to use a product for what it is designed for. Already they are increasing their turnover.

And, of course, they don’t need to upgrade the product because users are doing this. An OpenSource licence allows people to make changes to the software on the condition they send back the changes to the company if they wish to pass their improvements on. Which is fine all the way around. Therefore, Widget Software can reduce the number of engineers as they will have less work to do, so their profit increases.

This is the scenario that many in the computer industry think may the way to go. I will quote the example of Canonical Limited. They started using the OpenSource movement to create the Ubuntu version of Linux, who then gives their server and desktop software away free of charge, including the source code. The forums are full of very helpful people who spend ages helping newcomers to this operating system. And, after a few years, Canonical Limited who offer support contracts to larger organisations have grown their staff to over 200 people at the last count in 2009.

As an example, one of their best customers are the French Gendarmerie Nationale, who have a number of servers running Ubuntu and have recently moved 20,000 desktops to Ubuntu and the next 80,000 desktops are being moved over in 2010 and 2011. Certainly a vote of confidence.

I moved over to Ubuntu in my 70th year and, quite frankly, found it much more intuitive than Windows. Instead of the £300 Microsoft Office, I use the OpenSource OpenOffice which will read and save in Microsoft formats. I also use Firefox web browser which is so much more advanced than Internet Explorer. For Email I use Thunderbird. All these programs are available on Windows, the Mac and Linux so I initially moved over to them when I was using Windows and when I was up and running with each, I only then moved to the Linux operating system.

One thing to mention about Linux, if you have an old computer in the attic, which runs Windows at such a slow speed, you may well find it comes to life with Linux

There are thousands of OpenSource programs available (18,000 at the last count) but most of them only run on Linux alas.

As a voluntary organisation, The Finchley Arrow has made a conscious decision only to use OpenSource software with the proviso that it only uses the ones that run on all three platforms (Mac, Windows and Linux). This means that if a new volunteer arrives and wants to take a job which relies on software, they can download the software from the Internet for free, no matter what computer they own. We even produce our newspaper using an open source desktop program called Scribus.

I personally save around £500 a year using Linux. This is with software savings, hardware savings as we no longer need to change the computer every three years, and support savings as we get tremendous help on the Forums and can do it ourselves, even at age 70!



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