Sunday, December 5, 2010

15 Reasons Why I Love Open Source

Open source software is free in two senses of the word: It is free as in beer, and free as in speech. The "source" part of open source refers to the actual lines of computer code that to compile to form the final software package. "Open" means that anyone can download that code, look at it, change it, use it, re-compile it, improve it, learn from it, adapt it, and integrate it his or her own projects.

  1. The community. Open source communities comprise friendly, helpful, enthusiastic, passionate, generous people. They appear on list-serves, discussion groups, IRC channels, blogs, forums, and other arenas to discuss nearly every open source project or topic you can think of.
  2. The teamwork. On large projects, community members typically contribute only small bits of code at a time, sometimes only one line. Some users don't contribute code at all, but focus on graphics or documentation.
  3. The licenses. MIT license, GNU license, Mozilla license, and others. People have put a lot of thought into making these licenses fair, solid, and protective of open source ideals. Most open source software projects apply one of these licenses, which assure the users that the software will always be free and open source.
  4. The cost. With an open source license attached, the software is free, always, with no exceptions, ever.
  5. The quality. It's constantly improving, and it has spawned some of the greatest software available. In the realm of web development, nearly all of the best packages are community-driven and open source, such as the Apache web server (which serves 59% of all web pages), the Linux OS, the WordPress platform, and Wikipedia (the underlying software, not the content).
  6. The evolution. The software industry changes rapidly, and the nothing beats the open source community at riding, pushing, adapting to, benefiting from, and gaining from that change. For example in the Ruby on Rails community, a popular authentication module called restful_authentication discontinued development as the Rails core itself moved on to more sophisticated technology; as a result, along came Devise, a better, faster, cleaner, and more elegant solution. The community evolved.
  7. The add-ons. Ruby and Ruby on Rails has Gems. R has packages. Firefox has add-ons. The modularity bult into these popular programs allows the community to easily contribute functionality, and it allows user to easily adopt that new functionality.
  8. The software. The software itself is great. I use Ubuntu Linux, Open Office, Ruby on Rails, R, Firefox, and others. Open source software virtually can't be bad--otherwise users would flee and development would cease and the project would die.
  9. The updates. I love getting updates. I love downloading the newest versions and reading about all the improvements that volunteers have made. I love it when I get a slick new version of Ubuntu every six months. In the private software world, programs sometimes stagnate. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6 in 2001, then essentially ceased developing it for years until Firefox (open source) took over a huge piece of its market.
  10. The security. Linux, the open source operating system that can replace Windows, has no viruses that I know of. Ruby on Rails provides security fixes so fast they once tripped over their own feet and broke their own code base.
  11. The distribution. Open source projects sometimes have hundreds or thousands of contributors. The wide distribution of volunteers means that popular projects will virtually never stall.
  12. The transparency. An open source project will typically provide plenty of information about what developments are currently underway, where the project is headed, and when to expect updates and new releases.
  13. The competition. Open source projects compete with each other for users, and they compete with private industry groups for users. This healthy competition forces both sides to continue producing good software, and on the private side, it helps drive costs down for proprietary software. In many cases, it has lead to private companies releasing their software for free (while keeping their code "closed-source"). Free software: Skype, Internet Explorer, Adobe Reader. Without open-source equivalents, these companies might have no reason not to charge for this software.
  14. The equivalents. For many proprietary software packages, the open source community has created free equivalents. Microsoft Office has Open Office; Adobe Photoshop has GIMP; Microsft Windows and Apple OsX have Linux. See Open Source as Alternative ( for a complete list.
  15. The names. The open source community gives creative, apt, and frequently humorous names to its creations. For example, Cinerella is a movie movie studio package, and Pidgin is an instant messenger platform that "speaks" to many different services.
Look around your computer at the programs you use the most, and consider trying out an open source alternative. Beginners: Start by replacing Internet Explorer with Firefox. More advanced users: Download Open Office instead of paying hundreds of dollars for the next release of Microsoft Offce (NB: MS Office has legitimately better features, but only power users can tell the difference). Advanced: Download Ubuntu and try a whole new operating system.

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