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The Source of Open Source

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This chapter gives you the scoop on what you need to know before you start using open source software, most especially where it's coming from, who's had a hand in creating it, and where to find the latest version.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Executive Summary

Every good newspaper story starts with these critical questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. By answering these questions right up front, the reporter enables readers to comprehend the important facts and implications of an issue quickly and incisively. This chapter uses the practices of journalism to provide a quick overview of open source software. It addresses each of the questions and offers a speedy introduction to what is perhaps the biggest sea change in the software industry since its beginnings more than 40 years ago.

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This chapter answers the who, what, when, where, why, and how of open source.

Since those beginnings, nearly every software company in the world has followed the same business archetype: closely held intellectual property, developed by the company's own employees, delivered in binary format, licensed to users to run on their own computers. This formula has been responsible for the growth of today's commercial software industry: a $400-billion business behemoth that the United States dominates, and the products of which impact nearly every person on earth.

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Software has traditionally followed a consistent business archetype.

Today, however, that archetype is being challenged by a new software formula: open source. Developed and maintained by volunteers, distributed to users at no cost, and available in source form, it is radically different from its commercial counterpart. Open source promises to shift the balance of power from vendors to users: Information technology (IT) organizations can, for the first time, control their own destiny.

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Open source differs radically from commercial software and offers users much more control.

However, this control comes with a price. As the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp illustrates, magic powers carry with them new responsibilities. Each of the new characteristics of open source software forces IT organizations to develop new ways of thinking about how they procure and implement software.

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Open source's control comes with new responsibilities.

Available without cost, open source is distributed to users under different licensing terms from commercial software. Open source licenses offer IT organizations much more freedom in how they use software—freedom to install it wherever they want, modify its source code if they wish, and even redistribute the modified source to anyone they choose. IT organizations have far more power over their software infrastructure now than at any time in the history of computing.

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Open source offers IT organizations much more freedom.

In addition to the different license conditions, open source software is created under different conditions from commercial software. Instead of being developed by a private company that takes responsibility for all aspects of the product, open source is written by a small group of developers, typically unpaid volunteers. For delivery of all other product elements, open source developers rely on the user community or other commercial entities.

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Open source is created much differently from commercial software.

Because of the differences between open source and commercial software, IT organizations must use new methods to select and assess software. Open source users must take responsibility for locating all the product elements that commercial software companies typically deliver along with their software: support, training, documentation, and the like.

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Open source causes IT organizations to use new methods to select and assess software.

Locating the elements is just half the battle, however. Unlike the commercial software industry, where the vendor takes responsibility for the quality of each of the product elements, in the open source world that responsibility falls to the user. Each element must be evaluated by the user to determine its quality. This responsibility demands a new model of product procurement—one where the IT organization is an active participant in creating the complete product, rather than a passive recipient of what the vendor delivers.

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With open source, users must take responsibility for the quality of the complete product.

The new archetype demands new working practices. Just as the software industry has had more than 40 years to perfect its business practices, software users have had more than 40 years to hone their skills in procuring and implementing commercial software. For open source, new skills need to be developed and used.

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The new open source archetype demands new working practices.

This chapter begins the process of outlining those skills with an introduction to open source. It addresses the following topics:

  • What is open source?

  • Who creates open source?

  • Who uses open source?

  • Where do I get open source software?

  • When and how do I use open source?

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