‘Open source’ opens options for code solutions

What is ‘open source’?

According to the Open Source Initiative (OSI), ‘open source’ encompasses software that freely distributes its source code. What exactly does this mean and how is this important to you?

Every piece of software, from the operating system to the little clock in your taskbar, is “written” as code. Code simply refers to a set of instructions in computer language that makes it easy for human beings to conjure up programs. To a computer, the software itself is nothing more than a string of 0s and 1s, which are, for the most part, incomprehensible to the rest of us. In existence today are three main philosophies regarding this code. The ‘closed source’ philosophy means the end-user (little you typing away at your desktop) gets the program, but not the source code that creates it.

This is largely what happens on the Windows(R) and Macintosh platforms. A closely related philosophy is that of ‘shared source,’ in which the original author agrees to share parts of the code, but not all of it. ‘Open source’ is third and distributes the source code freely to everyone. It should be noted that ‘freely’ does not refer to ‘free as in beer.’ Instead, think of ‘free’ as in ‘freedom.’

The advantages of ‘open source’ are innumerable. Because the entire source code is shared with everyone, every capable programmer in this world functions as a resource. The original author has potentially millions of computer programmers working on perfecting and improving the code, whereas ‘closed source’ companies are limited to only the employees they have, which even in big companies is rarely more than a hundred. Perhaps rather surprisingly, most computer programmers devote their free time to improving ‘open source’ solutions. Economists tend to argue that in a capitalist society this is not feasible. Maybe not in theory, but out there literally millions of people are working on programs in their spare time. For fun.

Having a seemingly unlimited supply of programmers who work for pure joy on software makes ‘open source’ what it is. If millions of people can’t think of anything better to do than to improve software, software will indeed be improved. ‘Open source’ solutions have historically been more reliable and more secure (do you really think that millions of people would compromise security and reliability on their pet projects?). Ask yourself: would you feel more secure in an environment where you are told that you are secure or in an environment where you get to see precisely what is meant by “security” and are granted the freedom to change what you like?

‘Open source’ is not for everyone. If you are a hardcore gamer, stick with Windows(R) – that’s what it’s there for. For everyone else, ‘open source’ offers the same capabilities with better service (yes, even Microsoft Office compatibility).

Felix Boecker can be contacted at f.boecker@umiami.edu.