Why Use Open Source Software?

Monday Dec 14th 2015 by Matt Hartley
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The reasons to choose open source are numerous, ranging from the practical to the philosophical.

Almost everyday, someone within the open source community is talking about how folks should be using open source software. I completely agree with this point of view. To further dive into the issue, I'll share my opinion as to why using open source software offers significant advantages over proprietary alternatives.

Software vs Operating Systems

Did you know that most people run their software because it allows them to accomplish a specific task, not because it runs on a particular operating system? While mobile users may be die-hard fans of their chosen platforms, when it comes to the desktop most people simply use what is familiar to them.

Some of the Mac users I know, for example, run OS X for the software and the user experience. When asked if the software and user experience could be offered elsewhere, these folks indicated to me that they'd happily move over to that platform if it were cheaper than a Mac. I've heard the same thing from Windows gamers – they stick around for the games, not for the platform itself.

Obviously this isn't a blanket statement claiming everyone out there feels the same way. That would be silly. Rather, my point is that there are enough people using proprietary software because it's allowing them to accomplish a set task – not because of the OS it runs on. Understanding this, I believe there are many folks in this area who would benefit from exploring the possibility of trying open source software vs their current proprietary applications.

Practical reasons for open source software

Some IT people and more technical computer enthusiasts believe that open source software is less secure due to its open nature. These same individuals might also feel that open source software is less reliable since many applications aren't backed by large companies like Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, etc.

I'd argue that isn't the case. I believe open source software is often more secure and more flexible than proprietary options as it has nothing to hide. The entire process can be vetted at anytime by examining the source code, offering to help with the software development and learning how the application works from the inside. I'd be lying if I claimed that all open source software is 100% secure and totally bulletproof. Obviously no application is completely secure, this is why updates and patches are important to install as they're released.

Taking the matter of updates further, when a proprietary application stops being developed, it's not uncommon for its updates to stop as well. With open source software, interested parties can fork or adopt the code for a given application and continue releasing updates for it. The Geary email application is a good open source example of this. When Yorba shuttered its doors and stopped supporting Geary, the GNOME foundation took over hosting it. GNOME is also handling the support and development end of things as well, including IRC chat, mailing list, and code contributor submissions.

Another significant reason to use open source software is to prevent vendor lock-in. For example, let's say you're using a proprietary publishing application. One day, the company releases a new version and explains that going forward, older file versions for the application won't be supported by the new version. This means if you have an older version of one PC, and the latest version on the second PC, they can't exchange files due to compatibility issues. The company's motivation is for you to run the latest version of the software on BOTH computers.

Had the company been using open source software, the file format would have either remained unchanged between software versions or the ability to import the older files would have been provided. A great example of this is found with Microsoft Office documents. Even though today's LibreOffice has fair docx support, it's still known to cause formatting and other compatibility issues due to Microsoft's document standard. With LibreOffice's support of the ODF format, Word 2007 and higher all support the file format just fine. After all, it's an open document standard. So adopting it into an application is transparent. The same can't be said for docx.

The last consideration is important to companies that rely on software support. Getting proprietary software support means getting it from the original software vendor. If that company goes under or stops supporting the application, you're out of luck. But even if they still support your software, perhaps you have had lousy experience with the software provider's customer service. And why should they care – if you want support, you're forced to come to them.

In the open source world, especially in terms of enterprise applications, there are ample open source support companies willing to help. Many open source projects have commercial support available. And if a project doesn't, often you can find a separate company that provides paid support for most open source applications. Many times these separate companies are part of a certification process for that particular open source software. Examples include Linux certification to LibreOffice certification.

Philosophical reasons for open source software

In addition to the practical reasons for using open source software, there is also a matter of the philosophical reasons. Freedom is the first that comes to mind. Open source software comes with a license that allows you to take the existing code and make it better. From there, you're free to use it while sharing your changes with the open source community as well. It's this freedom of code access that has allowed the open source software world to explode in popularity.

One of the most popular open source licenses is called the GPL. It comes from the Free Software Foundation and is what many of today's most popular open source applications use for licensing. One great feature about the GPL is that it encourages the sharing of code improvements. This has allowed the open source community to work together to push through any bugs or fixes needed.

With proprietary software, even freeware has its price. Freeware doesn't encourage improvements offered by its users. First off, you have no idea what the code is doing or how safe it is. Secondly, you can't see how it works behind the scenes. So even if you have the technical skill to offer a bug fix, you're not able to contribute directly. Another issue with freeware is nag screens, crippled features, or that it might come bundled with malware.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons to use open source software is control. Daily, I read stories on various forums where a proprietary application decided to update itself without permission. Windows 10 is an excellent example of this disregard for the casual user. Another example is trying to overcome a product key with a proprietary game or a software title. If the DRM has a failure for some reason, it affects the user – not the company that created the software. Open source applications don't rely on product keys or other means of authenticating users in order to simply run a local application. Open source offers users software with complete freedom.

The last thing I want to touch on is cost. Open source software is designed to be available to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Someone who is flat broke can still enjoy open source applications, even if they're unable to donate money in return. Because most open source software rely on donations or sell services, there is no need to charge a flat fee for access to the application.

Open source software offers true ownership

In an era of companies like John Deere telling their customers what they can and can't do with their tractors, software freedom is more important than ever. I think for most people the idea of software freedom doesn't really matter too much until it affects you. Imagine living in a world where you can't remove or install the software you want on your own computer. I fear we're closer to this world than most people realize.

What say you? Do you have some favorite open source applications you can't live without? Perhaps you disagree with me and think open source software is silly and proprietary applications offer a better experience? Hit the comments and share your perspective.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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